Hearts in Exile

Margaret Morrison and Ava Jenkins in Morrison’s “Home in Her Heart.” | KEITH GEMEREK

Margaret Morrison and Ava Jenkins in Morrison’s “Home in Her Heart.” | KEITH GEMEREK

In the arena of doomed lovers in drama, Romeo and Juliet have some pretty stiff competition from Jimmie LeRoy and Claire Hicks, misunderstood misfits at the center of “Home In Her Heart,” now playing at Stage Left Studio.

Jimmie is a white, Jewish, middle-aged male impersonator with a popular tap-dance act. The much younger Claire, an African-American pianist and composer who lost her husband in a car wreck, is her music director and lover.

Which might not raise many eyebrows if the play took place in, say, present-day New York. But this intricately shaded drama is set in London in August 1939, just as American expats are ordered to flee Britain in advance of Hitler’s invasion. For three magical years, the duo have managed to set up house in a cozy flat, enjoying the adulation of crowds and the joys of simply being themselves. All on the QT, of course.

A widowed African-American pianist and a white drag king seek a place to call home

Now forced to return to the States, where even the suggestion of a homosexual, interracial couple would have society up in arms, Jimmie and Claire must face up to some tough decisions.

Originally from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Jimmie was disowned by her family for being a “dyke” (her father sat shiva for her). Claire, who comes from a large, tight-knit family, is not ready to reveal her sexuality and risk rejection. Bringing shame upon herself is one thing, but disgracing loved ones is more than she can bear.

Not that family is the only issue. Homosexual acts are illegal and also seen as immoral, and Claire is unnerved. “I’m not sure if what we do is sodomy,” she says, eliciting one of the occasional bursts of uneasy laughter from the audience.

Is it worth fighting to stay together?

That’s just one of the urgent questions that keep us on the edge of our seats in this thoughtful, vibrant two-hander, written by the supremely multitalented Margaret Morrison, who also plays Jimmie. Sporting cropped, graying curled locks, she embodies the tormented performer with a heady mix of grit and tenderness. Her tap dancing is impressive as well.

Portraying Claire, Ava Jenkins is at her best during the ecstatic, hopeful moments — wrapped in Jimmie’s loving embrace or flush with excitement after playing an impromptu concert on the ocean liner bound for New York. Female piano players, it should be noted, were a curiosity back then. A “negro” female piano player was borderline scandalous.

Staged with razor-sharp simplicity by Cheryl King, creator and producing director of Stage Left Studio, “Home In Her Heart” is much more than a gripping love story. Although set well over a half-century ago, the thorny matters of racism, sexism, and homophobia still resonate fiercely today.

There is no real set to speak of, just a few key props, like stacks of Claire’s music charts and Jimmie’s costumes hanging on the wall. Scene changes are marked by evocative audio tracks of a bustling nightclub, air raid signals, a radio announcer issuing gas mask warnings, and an ocean liner horn. Brilliant touches that immediately telegraph context.

The production is perked up by well-chosen snippets of popular songs of the day, like “Embraceable You” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” by the Gershwin brothers. Recorded piano solos are performed by Cynthia Hilts.

This raw, often haunting piece conjures some unvarnished, intimate moments, where the extraordinary couple, often in various states of dishevelment or undress, behave like any ordinary couple — warmly reminiscing, bickering over what to pack, or making love.

Although Jimmie wears the pants, so to speak, it’s Claire who sometimes calls the shots. When Jimmie suggests she travel under the guise of her maid, for instance, Claire becomes outraged and refuses.

The delicate, stunning scene where Jimmie needs Claire’s help in bandaging up her breasts to flatten her silhouette before she dons a striped, double breasted suit and pink paisley tie for their farewell performance, is like nothing you will see on any New York stage this season.

HOME IN HER HEART | Stage Left Studio, 214 W. 30th St., sixth fl. | Through Apr. 19: Schedule varies | $22 at stageleftstudio.net | 85 mins., no intermission