O n Game of Thrones, playboy dwarf Tyrion Lannister is tortured by his father’s rejections. On Breaking Bad, chemistry teacher Walter White is tortured by the idea that he isn’t the kind of father he should be. In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the torture goes both ways—a son resents a father, and a father is vexed by his inability to bridge the divide.
Back to Shakespearean times—heck, back to biblical ones—relationships between fathers and sons have gotten major play in storytelling. And for good reason: the relationship is peculiarly tense. Boilerplate masculine ideals like toughness and self-sufficiency spur men to keep a certain emotional distance from other men—an impulse directly at odds with the closeness of a typical parent-child relationship. Expectations and feelings unmet and unexpressed turn to disappointments and grudges, which fester and grow and become influential beyond all reasonable proportion. And by the time men might be ready to let their guards down—having proved or become settled enough in their own lives to embrace less combative approaches to living—their sons have built up similar defenses of their own.
That’s more or less the point in Benjamin Scheuer’s life when The Lion, Scheuer’s enthralling musical autobiography and unique take on father-son relationships, really takes off. Playing at Long Wharf, the one-man show, directed here by Sean Daniels, starts innocently, sweetly, nostalgically, and by the end of the first song—a quick-fire folk tune, expertly finger-picked from an acoustic guitar and beautifully sung into a large-diaphragm mic—we understand that young Scheuer’s father has a soft side. Dad’s a folk guitarist who made his son a toy banjo with rubber band strings, a red necktie strap and a cookie tin-top body so they could “play” together. And when his boy outgrew it, wanting “strings of steel and something new and something real,” Dad obliged, then taught his son his first chords.
Even in the tender song that tells us these things, we can detect ominous progressions at odds with the lyrics—notes that foreshadow the layered monologues and songs to follow. We come to know that Scheuer’s father, named Rick, is an admired and imposing man even to those who aren’t his young first-born son—a professional mathematician, with an economics degree from Harvard and a law degree from Columbia. And we learn that Dad has a dark side, breaking Ben’s toys without explanation; storming away when his son asks for a guitar lesson, calling the request “stupid;” and breaking a glass of OJ against a wall during a scolding for an “embarrassment:” a 13-year-old Ben’s C- in math.
Confused and resentful, there’s a lot more of both feelings to come for young, growing Ben, who’s about to have to grow up too fast, and though it’s better not to reveal any more of the plot, how it unfolds is just as important as what unfolds. Performed in Long Wharf’s Stage II theater—a black box with spiffy red-backed seats rising at a steep angle, which means visibility is good even from the back corners—the set is grounded in a wood-planked floor like the kind you might find in a classic music studio. There’s a curved back wall stressed like an old pair of jeans, with a desk and a door along its arc and a stage-wide ring of incandescent lights overhead.
Most vitally, there are six guitars scattered about, their long necks pointing skyward. Across a runtime that’s just under 70 minutes, Scheuer—who’s a genuine ace, at both singing and playing—is constantly switching between them, and between evolving musical styles that enhance the moods and moments of the story, which range from sanguine to melancholy to furious.
It’s hard to imagine what it’s like for Scheuer to relive it all eight times a week. But imagining audiences’ feelings is easy. Suffice it say that even though Scheuer’s story is rather extraordinary, most anyone who’s had or been a father, or had or been a son—so, most anyone at all—won’t just relate to The Lion but will be deeply moved by it. And they’ll get to hear some exceptional music along the way.
The Lion at Long Wharf Theatre
222 Sargent Dr, New Haven (map)
Showtimes through February 7.
Written by Dan Mims. Photograph provided courtesy of Long Wharf Theatre.