Playwright Harrison David Rivers and Diversionary Theatre score a pair of coups, the former in having his award-winning* when last we flew get its West Coast Premiere at San Diego’s esteemed LGBT theater, the latter in giving Rivers’ mystical, magical dramedy its first major, fully-staged production since its limited-run debut at the 2010 New York International Fringe Festival.  The result is one of the best (and most unique) coming of age stories I’ve seen onstage.

 Taking as its inspiration Tony Kushner’s epic Angels In America, when last we flew (the lack of capital letters is deliberate, if a tad pretentious) introduces us to Paul (Cordell Mosteller), a gay African-American teenager growing up doubly different in small-town Kansas. With his only support system being his gay white best friend Ian (Noah Longton), who’s got his own problems dealing with unrequited love, Paul finds solace and inspiration from Kushner’s Angels In America: Millennium Approaches, which he has stolen from the school library and read so many times, the once pristine volume seems to be falling apart at its well-worn seams.

Whether imagining himself as Angels’ Louis being fucked by a stranger in New York’s Central Park, or having an angel-like visitor plunge through his bathroom ceiling to deliver a message similar those received by Kushner’s Prior Walter, Paul soon finds his own life paralleling the play that has become his obsession.

 Meanwhile, a new girl has arrived at Paul’s and Ian’s high school, the recently minted black activist Natalie (Rory Lipede), whose outrage at her Catholic school’s decision to move its Martin Luther King Birthday celebration to September (because, she is told, there are already too many Afrocentric events in January-February) gets her expelled and sent posthaste to Public High.

Over the course of a single day, events real and imagined (or a combination of both) bring Paul, Ian, and Natalie together, a trio of social misfits who, like the characters in Stephen Karam’s Speech & Debate (a previous Diversionary hit), find themselves turning to each other for support in a world which has a hard time understanding anyone perceived to be different.

 Among the other characters playwright Rivers introduces us to are Paul’s frustrated mother Marian (Lynaé Depriest), dealing simultaneously with a marital breakup and a teenage son who won’t leave the bathroom even for a stack of his mom’s pancakes, and Priscilla (Faeren Adams), Natalie’s equally aggravated mother, who finds her heretofore model daughter transformed seemingly overnight into black activist/troublemaker. (Though the role is not written for any specific race, Diversionary’s casting of a Caucasian Priscilla adds an extra layer to Natalie’s relationship with her mom.) Marshall Anderson brings to life a trio of characters—new transfer student Fresh, Paul’s father Ford, and the imaginary man with whom Paul fantasizes anonymous sexual encounters in Central Park’s The Brambles. Completing the cast is Equity Guest Artist Deanna Driscoll as The Angel, who takes several forms, human or quite possibly heavenly.

 Though Rivers’ play can probably best be appreciated by those already familiar with Kushner’s masterwork, the characters he has created and the problems they find themselves dealing with will strike chords even with those who don’t know Angels In America from Charlie’s Angels. As for its more fantastical elements, though they are indeed quite a bit out there, they are no more so than those in the play which Rivers’ emulates. (If you can accept an Angel announcing to Prior, “Greetings, Prophet! The great work begins! The Messenger has arrived!,” then why not accept one popping into Paul’s life, our teenage protagonist being equally in need of divine aid?)

Ultimately, what makes when last we flew work so very well is the authenticity of Rivers’ characters, particularly a trio of protagonists who will strike a chord in anyone who’s ever felt different, whether for race or religion or size or looks or sexual orientation. In fact, the only area in which when last we flew could be made even stronger would be in finding a less abrupt ending, one which doesn’t leave the audience (or at least this reviewer) thinking, “Oh, it’s over?”

Fortunately, this is a minor quibble, particularly in a production as finely cast, directed, and designed as this one is.

Though when last we flew has been wisely peopled almost entirely with San Diego-based actors, Diversionary Theatre made the savvy decision to bring out west its very talented original director, Los Angeles-to-New York transplant Colette Robert and its charismatic female star Lipede, a scene-stealing delight as the feisty young Natalie, a good girl gone temporarily bad (that is if overnight social activism can be considered a bad thing).

 South Carolina native Mosteller is what they call “a natural,” so instantly likeable and so thoroughly at ease in Paul’s skin that we are on his side from the get-go. Diversionary favorite Longton can not only still pass easily as a teen, he delivers a rich, three-dimensional performance as a boy for whom best-friendship is no longer enough (and how many of us haven’t been there at least once in our lives?). Adams and Depriest are both terrific at conveying the combination of love and anger and frustration that are so much a part of being the parent of a teenager. Anderson excels at three very different parts, in addition to being a tall, handsome charmer. Last but certainly not least, Driscoll is a ball of fire in her multiple roles, at least some of which may be hiding wings under their street clothes.

Diversionary Theatre once again delivers a production that looks every bit as good as a West Coast Premiere deserves to be, beginning with scenic designer Matt Scott’s blackboard-walled set onto which characters can chalk key words like “unrequited” or draw a lock to keep a mother out of a teen’s bathroom. Shirley Pierson’s just-right costumes, Luke Olson’s expert lighting design, David J. Medina’s effective props (among which feathers abound), and Blair Robert Nelson’s original music score and sound design can’t help but gratify playwright and director, whose original New York production necessitated Fringe Festival simplicity.

Megan Ames is stage manager, John E. Alexander executive director, and Bret Young producing director.

 It’s been an exciting, rewarding season of plays and musicals since Alexander’s arrival last year brought new life to an already vital Diversionary Theatre. Next Fall, The Pride, Harmony Kansas, Altar Boyz, Pippin, and now when last we flew add up to a half-dozen of Diversionary’s best, all within the past nine months. San Diegans gay and straight know Diversionary Theatre as one of the city’s best. when last we flew offers Angelinos yet another very good reason to check out this San Diego theater gem.

Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, San Diego.

*2011 GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Off-Off Broadway Play, 2010 FringeNYC Overall Excellence Award Winner, The Advocate’s Top 10 LGBTQ Fringe 2010

–Steven Stanley
November 17, 2012
Photos: Ken Jacques

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