Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
AIRDATE: MARCH 27, 2009
A middle-aged couple and a young man they’ve never wanted to meet confront each other over an open grave. Birds chirp cheerfully in the background. But a suicide has brought them here, as well as grief, guilt, shame and recrimination.
Andrew was always a little different. He was also gifted. A professional cellist, a Juilliard graduate, he had put in his requisite missionary service to the Church of Latter Day Saints . He loved the kinship and unity of his religious society. But because he was gay, he was excommunicated. His parents tried to change him, fix him, cure him, but they couldn’t accept him. His mother prayed for him every day, hoping to expunge his “sinful behavior.” His father, a syndicated radio broadcaster, with a popular parenting advice show, is totally at a loss. He’s stayed behind after the funeral, to conduct his own service, one that “speaks the truth.” Addressing the trees and birds, he proceeds to chronologue his son’s life and death, and how he failed him. He’s lost, though his hidebound wife stands her ground. And then, Marcus shows up, the man who loved Andrew, who lived with him, who probably knew him best.
“Facing East ,” a 2006 drama by noted Mormon author Carol Lynn Pearson, considers the dichotomies and hypocrisies of a warm, loving, family-oriented community that harshly rejects anyone who strays from the fold. Pearson, who was herself married to a gay man, and whose daughter has done the same, provides no easy answers. And of course, her story doesn’t only apply to Mormonism. It begs the universal question of religious intolerance, of choosing faith over family.
Some of the seams show in her excellently-intentioned efforts; the flashbacks, the exposition and the conceit of the ‘second service’ feel a little forced at times. But in the intimate Diversionary Theatre, on a beautifully sparse set, strewn with brightly colored leaves, towered over by a strikingly realistic tree, we’re drawn into the heart-rending story of helpless, bottomless grief, which is offset by a few lighter, more comical moments.
On opening night, the cast hadn’t quite gelled. There was a stiffness that proved somewhat distancing, though I’m sure they’ll ease into more cohesion over time. John Polak is perfectly anguished and ambivalent as the heart-sick, self-doubting father. As the parochial mother, Dana Hooley steadfastly clings to religious conviction, certain that her son is now ‘free from sin.’ Scott Striegel strikes just the right notes as Andy’s loving mate, showing appealing range in recalling their joyful, playful times together. Director Marybeth Bielawski-DeLeo keeps the action minimal, aptly centered on the gripping emotions.
In this fraught season of Harvey Milk and Proposition 8, here’s a play that confronts big issues on a small, personal scale. And that makes the most compelling argument of all.
“Facing East” runs through April 5 at Diversionary Theatre on the edge of Hillcrest.
©2009 PAT LAUNER