The creative team behind Showtime's "Common Ground" hopes the gay-themed drama isn't preaching to the converted.
"I don't want this to be a show people watch because they are sympathetic to the problem of homosexual intolerance in America," says actor Brian Kerwin, who is an executive producer of the film, which premieres Saturday. Kerwin ("Beggars and Choosers") also has a cameo in the dramatic trilogy written by acclaimed gay playwrights Paula Vogel, Terrence McNally and Harvey Fierstein.
"I'd like these writers and these actors and this format to hopefully get an audience that might change their mind [about gays]--that it may make them stop and think. Harvey Fierstein has dedicated himself to make the world a better place. I wouldn't mind if this is just one more brick in that structure." Described by director Donna Deitch as a gay "Our Town," the trilogy looks at gay life in a small Connecticut town over 40 years. Vogel ("How I Learned How to Drive") penned the first story, "A Friend of Dorothy." Set in 1954, the drama revolves around a young woman (Brittney Murphy) who is shunned by her home town when it's learn she was dishonorably discharged from the military because she was found in a gay bar.
"Mr. Roberts," penned by McNally ("Love! Valour! Compassion!"), is set in 1974 and deals with a bright, rich high school senior (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) who realizes he is gay but has no one to talk to. He turns for help to his French teacher (Steven Weber) who also is gay, but in the closest.
The final installment, Fierstein's "Andy and Amos," is set in the present and focuses on a father's (Ed Asner) struggle to reconcile his son's homosexuality.
Linking all three stories is Eric Stoltz as a Vietnam vet who goes from intolerance to acceptance.
Vogel recalls that the producers put the three playwrights together to hash out ideas for the trilogy. Originally, they wanted to center the stories in a New York gay bar. Then they realized they were all living in small towns.
"We thought that perhaps it would be a mistake to have something centered in a large city because I think that reinforces the notion that there is a ghettoization of gay people in America," she points out. "The thing about the '90s that's exciting is that there was an exodus [by gays] in the '50s from small towns to New York, San Francisco and L.A., but now there is an exodus back to the small hometowns where we grew up and where, in essence, we make our stand and become part of these communities." The playwrights conceived the town. "We designed the characters. We designed the character [played by Stoltz]. We start him as an 8-year-old and end up with him at middle age." Deitch envisioned Stoltz' character as the town's Greek chorus "between the average person in town and our main characters. You can see how his character changes as well and grows." Deitch, who directed the acclaimed 1986 feature "Desert Hearts," about the love affair between two women, notes that 14 years ago a film like "Common Ground" never would have been made.
But times have changed. With "Common Ground," she says, "we started going out to [actors] and everybody was saying 'yes."' Including teen dream Jonathan Taylor Thomas, who is best known as the second son, Randy, on "Home Improvement." Deitch says he gives a "breakthrough performance" as a troubled gay teen.
Thomas, who is a high school senior, says he was looking for a project to challenge himself. "I thought it was important to take that next step as an actor," he says, "and do something that would cause me to extend as an actor." Thomas did not want his character to seem a victim. "This kid is not whining about his situation," Thomas says. "He's a smart kid. He's driven and he's a great swimmer. He's going to Harvard. This is a kid who has a lot of accomplishments in his life ... that's why he makes the decision not to live his life in the shadows anymore." Thomas says that the world has become far more accepting, not only of gays, but "people who are different in general than ourselves, whether it be race or religious affiliation." But at the same time, he adds, "there is still a long way to go. This piece is called 'Common Ground' because what we all have in common is that we are human beings. You see the humanity in each of these characters. You see their struggle." *
"Common Ground" airs Saturday at 8 p.m. The network has rated it TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children).