If every man’s life is a story, then the time has come to write mine,” types fifteen-year-old Horace Poore from his tree house at the start of Anita Bryant Died For Your Sins, Brian Christopher Williams’ terrific memory play. Under West Coast Ensemble Co-Artistic Director Richard Israel’s inspired direction, and with a star-making turn by the brilliant young Wyatt Fenner, Anita Bryant Died For Your Sins shapes up to be this summer’s most talked-about and praised new play.

Growing up Poore is anything but dull for young Horace (Fenner) coming of age in the late 60s, early 70s.  “Like many families, we watched the Vietnam war over Salisbury steak and Kool-Aid,” recalls Horace, his mind going in time back to the summer of 1969.  Dad Myron (Tony Pandolfo) works for a construction company, Mom Etta (Jan Sheldrick) is a factory assembly-liner, and older brother Chaz (Nick Niven), the family “fly in the ointment,” has recently been expelled from his second attempt as a high school senior.  1969’s draft lottery is big news across the U.S., and young men ages 18 to 25 unlucky enough to have a draft number under 100 stand zero chance of avoiding being sent to fight in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

To seven-year-old Horace, however, being a “lottery winner” means big bucks. (“Dad plays the lottery. He calls it my college fund.”) Thus, when Chaz’s December 30th birthday is the third to be called, Horace excitedly concludes that “We won!” The news is not nearly so good for the rest of the Poore family, and certainly not for Chaz, who feels his only choice to escape this “stupid war” is an expatriate life in Canada. “It’s not stupid to die for your goddamn country,” retorts his angry, disappointed dad, who believes that his son is running away “like a goddamn sissy coward!” As for Mom, Chad’s hasty departure prompts, in Horace’s words, three weeks of “the great cleaning frenzy of 1969.” 

Horace, meanwhile, is doing his best to cope with a growing awareness of his burgeoning sexual identity.  The culprit for his dismay (and object of his obsession) is a 19-year-old swimming champ whom young Horace first sees on TV atop the winner’s podium, a “black, sleek, enticing patch of whiskers” above his upper lip. One glimpse of Mark Spitz, and Horace comes to the sudden realization that he has become the unwanted butt of “one of God’s goddamn practical jokes.”  “Something has happened to me,” he tells us. “I always knew I was different.  Now I know why.”

Three years later, Chaz is still somewhere hiding incommunicado in Canada, Watergate tops the evening news on a daily basis, and Horace is learning to (in his words) “deflect” any time a chance remark—or a song like Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”—threatens to call unwanted attention to his budding alternative sexuality. At junior high school, he recounts, “it takes only one day on the playground to realize that it’s the sissy that gets the beating,” and young Horace determines to take up sports. His P.E. teacher turns out to be none other than Mark Spitz look-alike Jake Spencer (Nick Ballard), a hunk of physical perfection Horace had earlier spotted showering butt-naked in the gym, and Horace is instantly smitten—alternately elated and terrified by his feelings for the coach.  “I can feel a lot of sick days coming up,” he declares.

As the years pass, including Mom’s obsessive redecoration of the house in red, white, and blue in honor of the 1976 Bicentennial, a new reason for Horace to “deflect” emerges in the person of Anita Bryant (Madelynn Fattibene).  Frequent TV appearances by the former Miss America-turned pop singer-turned spokesperson for the Florida Citrus Commission-turned fervent gay rights opponent make Horace feel more conspicuous than ever, and wondering if the people around him can “see it on me.”

And so it goes in Anita Bryant Died For Your Sins, one of the funniest and most exquisitely written comedy-dramas to come along in a long, long while. The family playwright Williams has created is loving, dysfunctional, apple-pie-American, totally screwed up, and an absolute joy to spend two hours with.  Besides creating wholly three-dimensional characters, Williams has quite a way with a quip, as when Horace comments that his parents “never met an expletive they didn’t like,” which Dad immediately follows with, “If I wanted any shit from you, I’d squeeze some from your head.” Delicious!

If you think the Poores will be in any way predictable, think again. One of the joys of Anita Bryant Died For Your Sins is how relentlessly surprising Horace and his family are.  Love makes people do foolish (and wonderful) things, and Horace and his family do both, and some pretty terrible ones in between.  By the end of the emotional rollercoaster ride that is Anita Bryant Died For Your Sins, no one in the Poore family remains the same as they were at its start, and teenage Horace may very well be on the road to greatness.

USC grad Fenner gave one of last year’s most brilliant supporting performances as Beethoven in Havok Theatre Company’s Dog Sees God.  Now, the prodigiously gifted young actor gets the starring (and star-making) role that he richly deserves, and his work here is, in a word, sublime. As many laughs as Horace’s clever quips inspire, Fenner is never anything less than completely real in the role. As we follow Horace’s journeys through life in all its complexities, Fenner’s eyes lighting up with joy or clouding over with dismay or burning with anger, we discover a fully three-dimensional human being who enchants, shocks, disappoints, and inspires us, and ultimately wins our hearts.

Sheldrick is absolutely brilliant as blue-collar mom Etta, her tough-as-nails exterior masking a bottomless heart of maternal love. Like Sheldrick, a superb Pandolfo defies stereotyping and our expectations of him, his Myron Poole ultimately far more than the Red State construction worker we initially pigeonhole him as.  

As the young men most influential in Horace’s life, the two Nicks could simply not be better. Niven’s wonderful, understated work as Chaz is a 180-degree shift from his brilliantly manic star turn as a teen serial killer in The Blank’s Dickie And Babe.  Niven makes Chaz the big brother any incipient gay teen would wish for, and once again proves himself an actor on the road to a brilliant career.  Ballard has been a StageSceneLA favorite since his 2006 performance as a young movie superstar in Dancing With The Bad Man. Though he could easily coast on his classic leading man good looks and physique, Ballard continually challenges himself in live theater, and the multilayered Coach Jake he creates here avoids any black-and-white stereotyping.  (It’s a treat to see Dog Sees God’s Beethoven [Fenner] and Matt [Ballard] reunited, and the rapport they developed in that production shows.)

Fattibene makes for a great, scarily real Anita Bryant, and Sean Owens is a hoot as her seemingly gay-as-a-goose-yet-hopelessly-clueless husband. (Both actors are equally effective in several other roles.) Sara J. Stuckey vanishes heartbreakingly into the skin of the Poores’ “retarded” Polish neighbor.

Playwright Williams could not have wished for a better cast or director, nor could West Coast Ensemble’s design team be topped. Stephen Gifford’s gorgeous wood-paneled set manages to make the El Centro Theatre’s smallish stage look twice as big, fitting in Horace’s Adirondack Mountain tree house, the Poore family dining area, and various other locales, all of which Lisa D. Katz lights to perfection.  Susanne Klein’s costumes beautifully evoke the 60s and 70s, and Fionnegan Justus Murphy’s sound design is his usual fine work.

It’s been a banner year for West Coast Ensemble, beginning with The Graduate, followed by Big The Musical, both of them absolute winners.  Anita Bryant Died For Your Sins proves the best of the bunch.  Funny, original, engrossing, tear-jerking, quirky, perceptive … it is all this and more.  A trip down memory lane for Baby Boomers.  A history lesson for the under-30s. A timely reminder that the Anita Bryants of the world live on, as strident, misguided, dangerous as they were when Horace Poole was learning to be a man. Anita Bryant Died For You Sins is a production no lover of great theater will want to miss.

West Coast Ensemble, El Centro Theatre, 800 N. El Centro Ave., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
August 21, 2009
                                                                               Photo: Ty Donaldson

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