In October 1991, Theatre Calgary presented a highly lauded production of playwright David Stevens’ The Sum of Us. Described as frank, funny and touching, the play explored the relationship between a widowed father and his gay son, set in a working-class suburb of Melbourne, Australia. The play first premiered in an acclaimed off-Broadway production in 1990, and Theatre Calgary was the next company to stage it after that inaugural run.
Stevens said The Sum of Us, was partly autobiographical. In a Calgary Herald interview, he explained: “My mother had to come to terms with the fact that her mother was a dyke and her son is a poofter. I thought, if she could cope with that, anyone could!” For the play, however, he made the father the compassionate parent, noting that his own father was somewhat “to the right of Genghis Khan.”
Theatre Calgary (TC) secured impressive talent for their production. Gordon Pinsent played the widower Harry, and Ted Atherton, his son Jeff. Theatre director Eric Steiner was engaged to bring The Sum of Us to the Canadian stage. Steiner, who came to Calgary, via Stratford, Chicago and Toronto had worked with TC before, directing The Normal Heart in 1986, one of the first plays about AIDS ever presented in the city.
Martin Morrow, Theatre Critic for the Calgary Herald, wrote:
“Eric Steiner’s production for TC is outstanding. As well-meaning Harry, venerable Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent gives a warm, rich, endearing performance – this is surely among the best acting he’s ever done. He’s well matched by blond, boyish Ted Atherton as the likeable underachiever Jeff – the pair have a beautiful familial chemistry on stage….. As it stands, it’s one of the best shows Theatre Calgary has ever done.”
Playwright Stevens was on the record that the TC production was the finest his play had been given. And Calgary audiences liked it too; the show tripled its expected revenues at the box office. Theatre Calgary then leveraged its success to open the play in Toronto that November at the Bathurst Street Theatre for an open-ended commercial run in collaboration with independent producer David Warack.
I remember seeing the play twice in Calgary and found it very moving. “Our children are only the sum of us, what we add up to,” said a philosophical Gordon Pinsent. “How could I be ashamed of what my seed has become?”
The Sum of Us would go on to be produced by theatre companies around the world and in 1994 was made into an Australian feature film starring Russell Crowe. Sadly, after ten years battling AIDS, Canadian theatre director Eric Steiner died on June 30, 1993.