The religious bigotry that led in large measure to the passage of Prop 8 last November is given a human face in Carol Lynn Pearson’s powerful one-act play, Facing East, now being brought beautifully to life by San Diego’s Diversionary Theatre. 

In it, Alex and Ruth McCormick, devout Mormons both, meet for the first time the life partner of their son Andy—on the day of Andy’s funeral, the 22-year-old Mormon having committed suicide on the steps of Salt Lake City’s Mormon Temple only days before.

First, however, the grieving couple have time alone with their son.  As they stand beside Andy’s grave, Alex suddenly blurts out, “Ever since this happened, I’ve had the feeling that you were relieved. Glad almost.” When Ruth does not respond, he 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 a terrible 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.”

In an ironic twist, it turns out that Alex is a well-known Mormon radio personality, host of “One Minute Dad,” and famed for his ability at helping parents deal with their rebellious kids. 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.”  

Ruth’s religious beliefs blind her to the fact that when Andy fell in love with Marcus, he was indeed becoming the kind of son his parents had taught him to be. Instead, she can only see Andy’s relationship with Marcus as 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.”

When Marcus arrives at Andy’s gravesite, not expecting his lover’s parent to still be there, Alex and Ruth react in entirely different ways.  Despite Marcus’s obvious love and devotion to Andy, Ruth’s world is one of rules to be followed and she refuses to be convinced that her son’s relationship was anything other than the Devil’s doing. Not the same for Alex, who begs Marcus to “tell me about my son,” 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, God loves me and I am gay, God loves me and I am gay…,” there seems to be more than just a spark of understanding in Alex.

Pearson doesn’t go for facile answers here.  Don’t expect Ruth to “see the light” in some dramatic turnabout. But maybe, just perhaps, Alex’s eyes can be opened to the truth, in the same way that events following the bigots’ victory in November may have begun to change minds and hearts in California.

The playwright hasn’t given her actors easy roles to play. Alex’s decision to hold an alternative funeral at Andy’s grave seems a bit forced, and Ruth’s lines often amount to spouting out church doctrine.  Still, in the hands of Diversionary’s cast, these dramatic shortcomings become minor.

As Alex, John Polak creates a very real portrait of a father suffering the pain of grief and doubt, all the while never forcing or overdoing Alex’s anguish or his tears. Scott Striegel does good, subtle work as Marcus, especially as his character reaches out to Andy’s father for acceptance.

Ultimately, though, this production of Facing East belongs to Dana Hooley, doing absolutely electric work here, spontaneous, fiery, multi-shaded, and layered with pain, confusion, and regret.  The marvelous Hooley gives here the kind of performance that makes one realize that yes, this is what great acting is about.

Credit for performances like these must of course be shared by the play’s director, Marybeth Bielawski-DeLeo.  I particularly liked the way Bielawski-DeLeo staged flashbacks to Andy’s childhood, in which, at various times, each of the three actors give voice to young Andy. In a previously reviewed production of Facing East, the director had actors playing Andy hide offstage.  Bielawski-DeLeo has them seated in the shadows yet remaining in full view, and it works better this way, allowing us to see Andy as part of the three people who loved him the most.

Amy Gilbert Reams has designed a beautiful set against a black backdrop, with an imposing tree built from short logs attached together to form its trunk, and fallen autumn leaves on the graveside grass. Jason Bieber’s lighting moves us back and forth in time as well as beautifully illuminating Reams’ set.  Sound design is by Bonnie Breckenridge with props by David Medina.

With a running-time of under 70 minutes, Facing East is a bit short for a full evening of theater, but it makes up for this with the beautiful production it is being given by Diversionary. Hopefully, its powerful message will not be heard only by “the choir,” Diversionary’s LGBT audience. This is a play to bring friends and family to, especially those who might have voted Yes On 8. Who knows? For every Ruth there well may be an Alex, someone whose eyes will be opened by the very real truths made plain in Facing East.

Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd., San Diego. 

–Steven Stanley
March 22, 2009
                                                     Photos: Ken Jacques

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