Who is to blame when a gay man kills himself?  Is it the “sin of homosexuality” that is at fault, or is it the judgment of those around him who chose to shun and shame, rather than to embrace? Sadly, even in the year 2008, there are far too many who believe the former. Religious faith, instead of being based on love and acceptance, is too often used to judge and condemn, something which author/playwright Carol Lynn Pearson knows all too well.

As a devout Mormon, Pearson married in the church, and during the 12 years of her marriage, she and husband Gerald had four children.  The two were divorced after Gerald left Pearson to explore his same sex desires, and when Gerald lay dying of AIDS in the early 1980s, it was his ex-wife who cared for him till his death. Since then, Pearson has become a spokesperson for the acceptance of gay people by their Mormon families, and in her powerful and thought-provoking play Facing East, she turns her focus on a middle aged LDS couple still reeling from the suicide of their 24-year-old son.

As Alex and Ruth McCormick stand beside the grave of their beloved Andy, Alex suddenly says to his wife, “Ever since this happened, I’ve had the feeling that you were relieved.  Glad almost.” When Ruth does not respond, Alex continues, “The funeral was a lie. I sat there and let it be a lie. I will not leave this spot until we give our son a proper funeral.”

Not once in Andy’s actual funeral was a central truth of his life spoken.  He was a gay man, and not only that, a gay man in a committed, loving relationship. No, protests, Ruth.  “That’s not who he was. That was his cross!” If so, it was quite a cross for Andy to bear.  He had spent years in therapy, including “reparatory” therapy, to cure himself of his so-called sin, and when he finally took steps to live his life truthfully, Andy was excommunicated by the church he loved so dearly, and according to Alex, “is survived by a father who failed him.”

Ironically, Alex is a well known Mormon radio personality, famed for his ability at helping parents deal with their rebellious kids, and as Andy grew to be a man, flashbacks reveal that Alex was indeed a loving father who took the time to really talk with his son and encourage him to find true love because “being in love is like Christmas all year round.”  When Andy fell in love with Marcus, he was becoming the kind of son his father had taught him to be, and the type of man his church (and his mother) taught him was the work of Satan.

Facing East deals with some tough, complex issues of family, religion, and sexuality. Whereas Ruth sees everything in black and white, Alex is beginning to view the world in shades of gray.  “I hope he was in love,” prays Alex, to which Ruth can only respond, “He broke his temple covenants. That is not love.”

Alex and Ruth’s world is rocked when Satan joins them at Andy’s grave. Well, not actually the devil himself, but as far as Ruth is concerned, pretty close to the Evil One incarnate—Andy’s boyfriend Marcus.

Pearson doesn’t go for easy answers here.  Don’t expect Ruth to “see the light” in some dramatic turnabout.  Despite Marcus’s obvious love and devotion to Andy, Ruth’s world is one of rules to be followed. Not quite the same for Alex. “Tell me about my son,” he begs Marcus, and when Marcus reveals that he made Andy stand in front of the bathroom mirror and repeat again and again, “God loves me and I am gay,” there seems to be more than just a spark of understanding in Alex.

Facing East is a play that presents acting challenges to its cast of three.  The actress playing Ruth must show us the sincerity of Ruth’s love for her son as well as the rigidity that keeps her looking at life as a book of laws, and for the most part Toni Trenton does commendable work.  The role of Alex is an even tougher sell, for Pearson’s script leaves unanswered questions about the man, the foremost among them being, why is he so comfortable talking about his son’s sexual orientation? It doesn’t help that the role borders on the melodramatic, and though Neil Miller tries hard, perhaps too hard, the emotion seems forced and the eyes remain dry.

Fortunately, from the moment that Jonathan Edward Brown arrives uninvited at the cemetery, Facing East takes flight.  Brown has the advantage of the (relatively) easier role, if only because Marcus has no agenda, hidden or otherwise. He is exactly what he seems, a grieving man who has lost the love of his life.  What sets Brown’s superb performance apart is that is absolutely real and played from the heart, with the emotions always near the surface.  Brown sweats real sweat and he cries real tears and the intensity of his performance does not waver for an instant.  At play’s end, he is drained, and we in the audience are grateful for the journey he has taken us on.

Pearson’s play has numerous flashbacks in which all three actors portray Andy, Miller and Trenton offstage and Brown in a very moving onstage monolog under the stars. We also see Alex’s cheery, empathetic on the air personality, and Miller is very good in these scenes.

Facing East is the second production by director Donald B. Shenk’s brand new Stillspeaking Theatre, a company which deserves kudos for undertaking edgy theater in a conservative community. His staging is imaginative, and makes good use of Stillspeaking’s space at the San Marino Congregational United Church Of Christ.  A raised stage keeps all sightlines clear, despite all seats being at floor level.  Tiffany Lynn Williams figurative set design (vertical white panels supporting tree branches) is a perfect fit for the venue, and her very effective lighting design allows us to imagine a verdant cemetery, differentiating it from flashback sequences.

In Facing East, Carol Lynn Pearson has a message which needs to be heard, now more than ever, and hopefully this production will find audiences to whom she is not simply preaching to the choir. Despite unevenness in its performances, it is theater worth seeing, and bringing friends and family to, and when Jonathan Edward Brown is onstage, it achieves its full power.

Stillspeaking Theatre, 2560 Huntington Drive, San Marino.  Through

–Steven Stanley
July 13, 2008

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