My Funny Valentine is a compassionate meditation on tragedy

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      By Dave Deveau. Directed by Cameron Mackenzie. A Zee Zee Theatre production. At the PAL Theatre on Friday, April 15. Continues until April 24

      There are points in this premiere of My Funny Valentine when emerging playwright Dave Deveau and sole performer Kyle Cameron are so in-the-groove artistically that, on opening night, the beauty of their talent reduced me to tears.

      In My Funny Valentine, Deveau looks at the 2008 murder of Lawrence King, a 15-year-old student in Oxnard, California, who asked another boy to be his valentine. The next day, the other kid, who was barely 14, shot King in the head twice. King died on Valentine’s Day.

      Wisely, Deveau avoids most of the obvious ways of approaching this material. Instead of showing us all of the characters we’d expect to meet, he introduces people on the periphery: King’s English teacher, for instance, and a little girl who received one of his organs in a transplant. This strategy eschews sensationalism and presents the idea that we all embody the issues embedded in the killing.

      For the most part, Deveau avoids oversimplification: a small-town journalist who covers the story admits that he is feeding on tragedy—an admirable confession from the playwright. And there are interesting dislocations. King sometimes wore makeup and high heels to school, but is that desultory, feminine kid we’re watching King, or is it a girl? The teacher, Helen, is a fantastic character—clumsy, self-deprecating, compassionate, and vengeful. And Deveau’s handling of her essential trajectory is sophisticated: we hit catharsis with her early, then move into the drudgery of sustained grief.

      That said, there are errors. Deveau brings Helen back too often and she repeats information. And Deveau’s characterization of a homophobe is unsuccessful, a distancing caricature.

      Actor Cameron’s work is distinguished by deep generosity—especially as Helen—and by the thoroughness with which he inhabits his characters’ skins. The mistake here is that, under Cameron Mackenzie’s otherwise strong direction, the characters are all assaultively twitchy.

      Jergus Oprsal’s lighting design is a stunning combination of angles and qualities of light, and Marina Szijarto’s set, a shrine surrounded by a circle of research material, is a gorgeously distilled response to the material.

      A play’s premiere is like a birth. My Funny Valentine is a beautiful baby.