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Partners Wright and Jivoff a true theater ‘power couple’

They don’t have a snappy portmanteau nickname like “Bennifer” or “Brangelina,” but C. Michael Wright and Ray Jivoff qualify as one of Milwaukee’s cultural power couples.

In their roles at two of Milwaukee’s most critically acclaimed theater companies, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and Skylight Music Theatre, the couple has helped shape the city’s artistic landscape over the better part of three decades.

Wright has been producing artistic director at MCT since 2005 and Jivoff the associate artistic director at Skylight since 2009 and interim artistic director for the 2016–17 season.

Given their prominence, it may be strange to hear that the two came to Milwaukee almost by accident.

In the summer of 1983, Wright was based in New York City but on the road as one of the leads in the national tour of “Master Harold” … and the Boys. Jivoff was in San Francisco, working for a children’s theater company after graduating from San Francisco State University. When Wright’s show came to town, a friend of Jivoff’s invited him to the opening night party — and the two hit it off. It’d ultimately be the first day in their 33 years together.

After stays in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York — and a stint of bi-coastal commuting — they wanted to settle down. But none of those cities seemed a good fit.

“We were looking for a community to live in,” Jivoff reflects.

They would ultimately choose Milwaukee, thanks in part to “Master Harold” again. Years before, while on the national tour, Wright turned 30 and realized he didn’t want to continue playing the title role of Hally — a 17-year-old South African boy — much longer, despite getting multiple offers to do so at regional theaters across the country. “I said to myself, ‘I’ll do it one more time,’” Wright says. “So I said yes to the Milwaukee Rep (in 1984). And that changed our lives, on kind of a whim.”

Through performing in that show and others at the Rep, Wright had grown enamored of Milwaukee, as had Jivoff. When Wright got the offer to do a few shows at Skylight, the couple took that as a signal: Move to Milwaukee, and just see what happens.

WIDE INTERESTS, EXPERIENCES

Neither Jivoff nor Wright say their goal was to end up in arts administration when they arrived in Milwaukee in the late 1980s. Their current jobs instead grew organically out of their own interests, and the freedom Milwaukee gave them to pursue more than one of them at once.

“(Milwaukee) seemed like a place where there was potential that we’d be able to do all the things we liked doing,” Jivoff says. “I know I didn’t want to just act, and I don’t know that there’s that much work to just act.”

Jivoff’s overlapping interests in theater and education made him a natural fit as the drama director at Catholic Memorial High School, where he taught for 12 years. He’s also been involved in developing multiple theater education programs in the city. Jivoff is a frequent collaborator with First Stage, which opened the same year he and Wright arrived in Milwaukee, and he originated Next Act’s education program “Next Actors” before being hired to develop Skylight’s education department in 1999 and subsequently becoming associate artistic director a decade later.

Wright says he arrived in Milwaukee thinking of himself as an actor but open to other opportunities; those opportunities came his way quickly. As he got to know other artists, Wright was invited to direct and teach, broadening his range of skills. He discovered he had a knack for arts administration in 1997, when he was asked to join the staff of Next Act Theatre as an associate artistic director. After eight years, he decided that he wanted to run his own company, and fate again kept the couple in Milwaukee — MCT’s founding artistic director Montgomery Davis announced his retirement, and Wright was selected to replace him.

One benefit of taking the MCT job was that it brought Wright under the same roof as his partner, since both Skylight and MCT are based in the Broadway Theatre Center in the Third Ward. But the couple say their work schedules often keep them on nonintersecting paths during the day. “So many people think ‘Oh, you probably go there at 9 together and leave at 5 together,’” Wright says. “No, no, no, no, no (laughs).”

Their day-to-day work patterns speak to a greater pattern in their professional careers. Unlike many other theater couples in the city and state, Wright and Jivoff say they don’t work together much, either as fellow actors or in an actor-director pairing. “I’ve done a lot of children’s theater and musical theater,” Jivoff says. “It’s more my type; I’m loud, over the top. … He’s much more serious — does Chekov and stuff like that (laughs).”

But as the conventional wisdom goes, it’s those different personality traits that they admire most in each other. “He’s my main advisor and teacher,” Jivoff says. “I get a ton of advice and guidance from him and he keeps me calm.”

“For me,” Wright adds, “Ray provides a sense of levity. He makes it easy to laugh at some of the absurd situations we find ourselves in. And even just to remember not to take it all too seriously. We both are incredibly passionate about the work … but it’s important to keep it in perspective.”

OUT AND PROUD

Both Wright and Jivoff say they’ve felt they can be open about their relationship, both within the extremely accepting theater community and with Milwaukeeans at large. They say there’s no denying, though, that society’s response to gay couples has shifted dramatically in that time.

“I have no problem at all saying to someone ‘my partner’ now, but I do think when I first came it was harder. It’s more accepting now,” Wright says. “When we grew up, things were very, very different. As youths dealing with being gay, it’s easier now.”

It’s also only in the last decade or so that Wright and Jivoff have risen to a level of prominence that people might be aware of their relationship without being told, as they’ve taken on administrative positions. Wright remembers one pivotal moment about 15 years ago, when they were mentioned in a Valentine’s Day column by retired Journal Sentinel critic Damien Jaques. Jaques interviewed several theater couples including Wright and Jivoff. “That made us public figures as a couple. Before that, whoever knew, knew, and whoever didn’t, didn’t. Then suddenly there you are in the paper.”

In many senses, Wright says he and Jivoff have come to feel their administrative positions make it important for them to be open about being gay and partnered, to serve as role models for their community. “Because we’re in positions of power now, I think it’s our responsibility to be more vocal about it,” he says.

MOWA puts photographer duo in the viewfinder

There is a familiar, strange and dark beauty in the lives drawn out by photographer duo J. Shimon & J. Lindemann. You know these people, you know these places. They are particular and peculiar, brought together at the Museum of Wisconsin Art for the pair’s largest museum show yet: a retrospective of their 30-year career. It is an eloquently important exhibition.

What is perhaps most fascinating about John Shimon and Julie Lindemann’s work is their ability to reveal parts of the individual self that are always there but often unseen. Artifice and stereotypes vanish. Their subjects candidly say what they want to say, offering authentic statements about who they are, recorded by the photographers’ lens.

Much is made, and rightly so, of Shimon and Lindemann’s identity as Wisconsin artists. They have long been based in the Manitowoc area, away from the clamoring crush and fashion parade of a glossy contemporary art world where much can be made of trends.

Shimon and Lindemann’s depth is sourced from their astute aesthetic, technical rigor and profound connection to a culture. It could not be replicated by an outsider and, in the transient nature of contemporary life, this gleams like a rare jewel. In this place, they have found freedom in the absence of the external.

The exhibition opens with the monumental photograph, “Angela with Kit (Blue Velvet Prom Dress), Reedsville, WI” (1997). Angela’s biography is deeply rooted in rural concerns as a student of dairy science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, participation in groups such as 4-H and Future Farmers of America and the award of the titles such as County Farm Bureau Queen. The juxtaposition of her formal attire and bovine companion may sound improbable or even ironic, but it speaks deeply to the complex aspects of life that exist simultaneously. Shimon and Lindemann compress these into a single moment. In the clarity of the image and its impressive scale, the detail of the hair raised on Angela’s arm is not lost. It is as though there is a chill in the air but she is resolute and unconcerned. There is a toughness and acceptance of conditions, whatever they may be.

“Debra at Home Revealing Tiger Tattoo, Sturgeon Bay, WI” (1999) is another dismantling of what may seem ordinary. In a field, with a farm silo in the distance, the subject opens her shirt dress to show a naked thigh with an inked cat crawling up her hip. In ways overt and discreet, Shimon and Lindemann reveal that there is much in the world either assumed or hidden. The photographers document from within, capturing a realness and beauty as though digging through topsoil to reveal rich earth beneath. 

The exhibition covers a variety of subjects, also illustrated in the exhibition catalog which is available in print and as a free download from the Museum of Wisconsin Art’s website. Categories include Rebellion, Machines, Farms, Landscape, and Sages, and the catalog (and exhibition) closes with the exquisite series “Decay Utopia Decay.”

In this last series, the camera is turned, transforming the creators into protagonists. Lindemann is an extraordinary subject as well as artist, pictured in the kitchen chopping vegetables or drying dishes. She is poised, cool and statuesque and turns the tables on domestic cliches. She is outfitted in black vinyl shorts and a lacy bustier with a demure apron printed with flowers. Sweeping the floor, Lindemann is nonchalant in a sheer negligée and heels. The camera angle is low, and she is in control.

A most stirring image comes in the form of “Self-Portrait in the Garden at Dusk, Whitelaw, WI” (1998). The title aptly uses the singular form for the collaborative pair. 

Shimon holds a heavy box camera while Lindemann stands stoically and sculpturally in a gauzy black dress. The location appears wild, barely tamed as the tall grasses and prairie flowers flourish under an overcast sky. The scene is activated by the artists’ presence and their practice. Photography gear has been hauled out, and the cords of an illuminated lamp trail off to some source of electricity. 

This is the place. Connected to the rest of the world like that black cord bringing light to this patch of the country, they inhabit it freely and easily, documenting and illuminating it and themselves, framed proudly against the horizon. 

“There’s a Place: Photographs by J. Shimon & J. Lindemann” continues through June 7 at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, 205 Veterans Avenue, West Bend. Visit wisconsinart.org for more details.

Texas AG says court-allowed lesbian marriage is invalid

As a newlywed lesbian couple in Texas celebrate defying a statewide ban on gay marriage, the state’s Republican attorney general is preparing to tell a court today why it should rule their nuptials invalid.

The marriage license given to two Austin women — who succeeded by seizing on a ruling this week in an unrelated estate squabble — thrust Texas back into the national spotlight over gay marriage but didn’t send same-sex couples rushing to courthouses.

The Texas Supreme Court acted quickly after an appeal from Attorney General Ken Paxton to block other potential gay marriages, making the nuptials somewhat bittersweet for Suzanne Bryant and Sarah Goodfriend.

“We just feel like we were in the right place at the right time, to maybe put a nice crack in that door that’s going to open up for all Texans,” Bryant said. Texas is one of 13 states where gay marriage remains outlawed.

Friends and Democratic lawmakers toasted Bryant and Goodfriend, who have been together 30 years and have two teenage daughters, at a downtown Austin bar earlier this week after county officials obeyed a judicial order to wed the couple.

Goodfriend, 58, has ovarian cancer. A state district judge raised the “severity and uncertainty” of her condition in granting the women permission to marry, sending the couple scrambling through a Travis County clerk building in case state Republican leaders got wind and intervened.

Within hours, the Texas Supreme Court had blocked other gay couples from getting married under similar special exceptions – but didn’t address the women’s marriage, which Paxton said he considered void.

But that remains in dispute, and Paxton’s spokeswoman, Cynthia Meyer, said their office will file additional paperwork with the state Supreme Court on Friday to argue their case.

“Activist judges don’t change Texas law and we will continue to aggressively defend the laws of our state,” Paxton said in a statement.

New Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also reaffirmed his support for Texas’ constitutional ban on same-sex marriage that voters overwhelmingly approved in 2005.

The women were granted a one-time license after an Austin probate judge this week ruled the state’s gay marriage ban unconstitutional in an estate case that was unrelated to the couple. Sensing an opportunity, Goodfriend and Bryant had their lawyer petition the judge Thursday morning.

State District Judge David Wahlberg, an elected Democrat, sided with the couple and directed Travis County officials to stop relying on “the unconstitutional Texas prohibitions against same-sex marriage as a basis for not issuing a marriage license.”

Bryant said that being legally married to Goodfriend would ensure inheritance and allow the couple to make medical decisions for each other should one of them become critically ill.

Courts in Indiana made a similar exception for a lesbian couple in April because one of the women was dying of cancer and wanted her partner’s name on her death certificate. A federal appeals court overturned Indiana’s ban in September.

A federal judge in San Antonio last year overturned Texas’ same-sex marriage ban but put his ruling on hold while the state appeals to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We are all waiting for a final decision on marriage equality,” said Travis County Clerk Dana Debeauvoir, whose office issued the marriage license. “However, this couple may not get the chance to hear the outcome of this issue because of one person’s health.”

Goodfriend, policy director for state Rep. Celia Israel, said during a news conference that her last chemotherapy treatment was 4 1/2 months ago. But, she added: “All of us wonder if the cancer grows back along with the hair growing back.”

Bryant, an Austin lawyer who works on adoptions for same-sex couples, said she and her wife believe their marriage license is valid.

Mark Phariss, who along with his partner are leading the Texas gay marriage lawsuit in federal court, said he was “thrilled” by news of the nuptials even though it’s unlikely to impact their bigger case. He said Bryant and Goodfriend’s circumstance “is evidence of the harm the ban is having on the state.”

Shortly after their marriage, Travis County officials said two other same-sex couples inquired about marriage licenses. By then, Paxton’s office was already preparing its emergency filing with the state Supreme Court.

“The AG can do what he wants. This is a very good day in Texas for progressively minded people, much less lesbian and gay people,” said Steven Tomlinson, who celebrated with Goodfriend and Bryant at their party Tuesday night.

2,000 protest expulsion of lesbian couple from Vienna cafe

Thousands of people gathered in front of a renowned Vienna cafe to demonstrate against the expulsion of a kissing lesbian couple.

Police estimated around 2,000 people participated in the protest on Jan. 16, forcing the closure of one downtown street. Some of the demonstrators exchanged long kisses.

The manager of Cafe Prueckel has apologized for telling the couple to leave last weekend. But the pair – Anastasia Lopez and Eva Prewein – say the demonstration is meant to draw attention to the general prevalence of discrimination against gays in Vienna.

Vienna hosts several events each year that attracts LGBT people from across Europe, and Austrian singer Conchita Wurst has become the figurehead for Europe’s LGBT community.

Vienna’s tourist agency has criticized the expulsions.

In Egypt, 8 convicted for same-sex wedding ceremony

An Egyptian court over the weekend convicted eight men for “inciting debauchery” following their appearance in an alleged same-sex wedding party on a Nile boat, sentencing each of them to three years in prison.

The Internet video shows two men exchanging rings and embracing among cheering friends. The eight were detained in September when a statement from the office of Egypt’s chief prosecutor said the video clip was “shameful to God” and “offensive to public morals.”

Egypt is a conservative majority Muslim country with a sizable minority of Christians. Homosexuality is a social taboo for both communities and only in recent years have fiction and movies included gay characters. Consensual same-sex relations are not explicitly prohibited, but other laws have been used to imprison gay men in recent years, including “debauchery” or “shameless public acts.” Same-sex marriage is unheard of in Egypt.

The verdict was received with protesting screams by relatives waiting outside the Cairo courthouse court. Some of them broke down and cried while others protested that medical examinations carried out by state doctors showed the defendants were not gay.

While inside the defendants’ cage for the hearing, the eight buried their heads in their hands or hid their faces under baseball caps. They covered their faces with pieces of cloth or paper when they were led by police out of the cage after they heard the verdict.

The verdict is the latest in a crackdown by authorities against gays and atheists. The campaign also targets liberal and pro-democracy activists and violators of a draconian law on street protests.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said in September that Egyptian authorities have repeatedly arrested and tortured men suspected of consensual gay conduct.

HRW condemned Saturday’s convictions as part of a widening campaign of intolerance in Egyptian government and society.

“Egypt’s government, evidently not satisfied jailing opposition members, students, and human rights activists, has found the time to prosecute (gays),” said Graeme Reid, HRW’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights director, in a statement. Reid called the sentencing “the latest signal that the new government will prosecute anyone to try to bolster its support.”

In April, four men were convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison for “debauchery” after allegedly holding parties that involved homosexual acts and where women’s clothing and makeup were found.

In 2001, Egypt made headlines around the world when 52 men were arrested in a police raid on a Nile boat restaurant and accused of taking part in a gay sex party. After a highly publicized trial in an emergency state security court, 23 of the men were convicted and sentenced to prison terms of one to five years for immoral behavior and contempt of religion.

Egypt’s crackdown on gays and atheists is taking place as the country of nearly 90 million people appears to be steadily moving to the right, with jingoism and xenophobia dominating the media as the army and security forces battle Islamic militants waging a campaign of violence against them in the Sinai Peninsula. The media, meanwhile, is targeting civil society groups and activists, accusing them of being foreign agents on the payroll of sinister foreign organizations.

Authorities say the country’s national interests must take precedence over everything else so Egypt can be spared the fate of countries like Syria, ravaged by a three-year-old civil war, or neighboring Libya, where radical Islamic militias control large areas of the oil-rich nation.

A much harsher crackdown targets members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the now-banned Islamist group that has been labelled a terrorist organization by the state. Authorities have killed hundreds of Islamists and jailed thousands since the military last year toppled the regime of Mohammed Morsi, who hails from the Brotherhood.

Morsi’s ouster took place in July 2013 as millions of Egyptians staged street protests to demand his removal.

Navy veteran gets OK to be buried with her wife in Idaho military cemetery

A U.S. Navy veteran can be buried with the ashes of her late spouse in a southwest Idaho military cemetery after the state legalized same-sex marriage.

“It’s done,” 74-year-old Madelynn Lee Taylor said on Oct. 22 after successfully completing paperwork to be buried at Idaho State Veterans Cemetery in Boise.

Taylor was previously denied permission to have her ashes interred with Jean Mixner because of Idaho’s ban on same-sex marriage. The cemetery is owned and operated by the state.

Same-sex marriage became legal in the state on Oct. 15, when the ban was lifted by courts that determined it was unconstitutional.

Taylor had filed a lawsuit in federal court in July seeking to be buried with Mixner, who died in 2012. The case is now expected to be dismissed.

“Lee deserves credit for shining a powerful light on the injustice and indignity caused by Idaho’s former exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage,” her attorney Deborah Ferguson told the Spokesman-Review ( http://bit.ly/1wtNRE2 ). “Her persistence, visibility and refusal to accept inequality are a model for us all.”

Cemetery Director James Earp on Oct. 22 welcomed Taylor, who has serious heart and lung problems and uses a cane, walker or scooter to get around. Earp helped Taylor through the paperwork and congratulated her with a handshake when it was done.

Taylor and Mixner met on a blind date in 1995 and married in California in 2008 when gay marriage was briefly legal there.

When Mixner got emphysema, she and Taylor made a promise: Whoever died first would be cremated and later buried with the other.

They chose the veterans cemetery because they knew it would be well maintained and decided on cremation and interment in a wall so their names and spot wouldn’t get covered over with weeds or grass. They wanted to be in Idaho, where their family could come to pay respects.

“It’s a good day – we get to get Jean out of the closet!” Taylor joked  after finishing the paperwork. “She’s dancing.”

Information from: The Spokesman-Review, http://www.spokesman.com

Suit over sperm bank error sets off extraordinary discussion

An unusual lawsuit prompted by an insemination gone wrong has set off an extraordinary discussion touching on sensitive issues of race, motherhood, sexuality and justice, though the debate begins with one basic premise: You should get what you pay for.

Jennifer Cramblett and her wife, Amanda Zinkon, wanted a white baby. They went to the Midwest Sperm Bank near Chicago and chose blond, blue-eyed donor No. 380, who looked like he could have been related to Zinkon. When Cramblett was five months pregnant, they found out that she her donor was No. 330, a black man.

“The couple did not get what they asked for, which was a particular donor. The company made a mistake, and it should have to pay for that,” says Jessica Barrow, an information technology professional in suburban Detroit.

Barrow is black and lesbian, with a white partner. They considered insemination of the white partner before choosing to adopt. When looking at donors, they wanted sperm from a black donor, to create a biracial baby that would have shared some physical characteristics with both of them.

“They’re not saying anything racist, they’re not saying, `We don’t want a black baby,'” Barrow said of Cramblett and Zinkon, who profess their love for their now 2-year-old daughter. “They’re saying, `We asked for something, you gave us something different, and now we have to adjust to that.’”

That “adjustment” is a major justification for Cramblett’s lawsuit. It cites the stress and anxiety of raising a brown girl in predominantly white Uniontown, Ohio, which Cramblett describes as intolerant. Some of her own family members have unconscious racial biases, the lawsuit says.

That leads some to believe that Cramblett is asking to be paid for the difficulties that many black folks — and white parents of adopted black children — deal with without compensation.

“I don’t think I deserve anything more being the white parent of a black child than any parent of a black child does,” says Rory Mullen, who adopted her daughter.

Strangers have asked Mullen why she didn’t adopt a white baby. One remarked in front of her white then-husband that Mullen must have cheated with a black man. Too many white people to count have pawed her daughter’s hair.

“It’s hard, but being a parent is hard,” says Mullen, who lives in Southern California.

“Being a parent is going to throw things at you that you never expected, and we make a decision that we’re going to roll with it, because we love our kids and they deserve it,” she says.

Mullen agrees that a company should be held liable for promising one thing and doing another. But she thinks the fact Cramblett waited more than two years to sue indicates that the experience of raising a black child is her real problem.

“When you say this is too hard, I didn’t deserve this, this is too much for me to handle, then the child internalizes it and it affects their self-esteem,” she says. “It’s my job to pour self-esteem into my daughter, not tear it down.”

From the days of American slavery through the 1960s, white men fathering children with black women was commonplace and tacitly accepted — yet there were few things as scandalous as a white woman with a brown baby.

That history makes Denene Millner, author of the MyBrownBaby.com blog, say that the lawsuit is “rooted in fear … stuck in the muck and mire of racism and the purity of white lineage.”

“She simply cannot fathom dealing with what it means to, in essence, be a Black mom, having to navigate and negotiate a racist world on behalf of a human she bore, in an environment of which she is a product,” Millner wrote.

Darron Smith, co-author of “White Parents, Black Children: Experiencing Transracial Adoption,” says that the lawsuit reflects America’s unexamined racist attitudes and Cramblett’s angst over having a biracial child.

He notes that due to supply and demand, it costs about half as much to adopt a black child as a white one, and many black boys in foster care are never adopted.

“This lawsuit demonstrates quite nicely the value of skin color,” says Smith, a professor at Wichita State University.

Yet Cramblett’s defenders say she should not be held responsible for being unprepared.

“White people who aren’t affiliated with black people don’t necessarily understand the challenges that black people face in all facets of their life. This couple wasn’t expecting that, and now they have to deal with it,” says Rachel Dube, who owns a youth sports business in New York.

“She didn’t ask for a biracial baby. She was given one, she loves it, she adores it, now she’s facing challenges and admits it. That doesn’t make her a racist,” Dube says.

“You can’t fault her for what she was not exposed to,” she says. “Her only obligation is to love and raise her child in the best environment possible. And if the money will help her do that, then good for her.”

3 charged in beating of gay couple in Philadelphia

Three people are charged in connection with an attack on a gay couple outside a Philadelphia restaurant earlier this month.

The assault, which resulted in hospitalization for the gay men, became a focus for amateur investigators who responded via social media to requests for leads from Philadelphia police.

Early Sept. 25, authorities announced charges against three young adults, who released on bail the same day.

They are 24-year-old Philip Williams of Warminster, 24-year-old Kathryn Knott of Southampton and 26-year-old Kevin Harrigan of Warrington.

Court records allege that the three individuals committed criminal conspiracy and two counts each of aggravated assault, simple assault and reckless endangerment.

They are accused assaulting a gay couple on the street outside a restaurant near Philadelphia’s popular gay neighborhood. The three allegedly held the two men on the ground and beat them, while hurling anti-gay slurs.

One man suffered an orbital fracture, which required his jaw to be wired.

Philadelphia, in the past decade, has made an effort to position the city as an eastern U.S. mecca for LGBT tourists.

2 Iowa women marry after 72 years together

More than seven decades after beginning their relationship, Vivian Boyack and Alice “Nonie” Dubes have gotten married.

Boyack, 91, and Dubes, 90, sat next to each other during a weekend ceremony, the Quad City Times reported.

“This is a celebration of something that should have happened a very long time ago,” the Rev. Linda Hunsaker told the small group of close friends and family who attended.

The women met in their hometown of Yale, Iowa, while growing up. Then they moved to Davenport in 1947 where Boyack taught school and Dubes did payroll work.

Dubes said the two have enjoyed their life together and over the years they have traveled to all 50 states, all the provinces of Canada, and to England twice.

“We’ve had a good time,” Dubes said.

Boyack said it takes a lot of love and work to keep a relationship going for 72 years.

Longtime friend Jerry Yeast, 73, said he got to know the couple when he worked in their yard as a teenager.

“I’ve known these two women all my life, and I can tell you, they are special,” Yeast said.

The two women say it is never too late for a new chapter in life.

Iowa legalized same-sex marriage in 2009. Same-sex couples can legally marry in 18 other states and the District of Columbia. Campaigns are underway to overturn marriage bans in the other states, with a number of cases, including one from Wisconsin, pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Many experts expect the high court to take up marriage equality next spring, with a decision on the validity of state bans on same-sex marriage coming in late June.

‘Love Is Strange’ is an understated but tender film

A gay couple together for almost four decades are separated — at least physically — by factors beyond their control in Love Is Strange, the latest tender and meandering exploration of human relationships from indie darling Ira Sachs (Keep the Lights On, Forty Shades of Blue). 

Set in the Big Apple, this is a sprawling yet intimate narrative, constructed almost entirely of in-between moments rather than the big turning points and tragedies. 

The starting point is the housing problem of two newlyweds but longtime lovers, played with enormous generosity by Alfred Molina and John Lithgow. But the film slowly expands its vision to encompass a much larger cast that includes Marisa Tomei and Cheyenne Jackson.

Love Is Strange opens on what should be the happiest day in the lives of Ben (Lithgow) and George (Molina), as they get ready in their tasteful Manhattan apartment for their wedding. Initially somewhat counter-intuitively, Sachs ensures that everything looks rather ordinary: They get up, shower, dress, are running late and can’t find a taxi. Indeed, as will become clear from the film that follows, this is not the happiest day in their lives exactly because the duo, who’ve been together for 39 years, have mastered the art of being happy with what they have, every single day.

Thus, the vows are dispatched in a scene under a minute long, and the marriage celebration takes place in the couple’s apartment and feels like any number of parties they must have had with friends over the years. Wedding guests include Ben’s nephew, Elliot (Darren Burrows), a busy businessman; Elliot’s wife, Kate (Tomei), a novelist who works from home; their teenage kid, Joey (Charlie Tahan), and the two party-loving gay cops who live in the lovebirds’ building, Roberto (Manny Perez) and Ted (Jackson). 

When news of the marriage reaches the ears of the New York archdiocese, George, who’s a Catholic school music teacher, is fired, and the couple are forced to sell the apartment. When finding new lodgings takes longer than anticipated, they ask their friends for a roof over their head, resulting in their separation.

Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias, from Lights, get the familiar humor and half-evoked memories so typical of long-term relationships exactly right, and a short scene in a historic gay bar is not only funny and real but also casually reveals some of the core values that have kept this couple going for all those years. 

That said, the rather strange living arrangements of the two, divorced physically if never emotionally, is one of a number of elements that has to be accepted for the film to work. A makeshift mattress for two somewhere would have turned this into a short. 

But more important things ring true, starting with George and Ben’s relationship, which is an inspiration for people like Elliot and Kate, too absorbed by their work to really follow their only son. Lithgow and Molina are impressively tuned in to the material and each other, and Tomei and the young Tahan deliver the film’s other heartfelt, fully rounded performances. Burrows and especially Perez and Jackson are given less to do, and there’s a sense their stories ended up on the cutting room floor. 

The soothing and occasionally quietly soaring music of Chopin, heard throughout the film, helps set the right tone for this understated drama. 

Cinematographer Christos Voudouris gives the characters room to breathe but is also intimate when necessary, while editors Michael Taylor and Affonso Goncalves string the series of small moments together with grace, turning the film into a quietly effective overview of relationships, feelings and outside occurrences that simply have to be dealt with.

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