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Latter-Gay Saints

August 22, 2007

Carol Lynn Pearson's gay Mormon drama sets the static and the fluid in bold opposition. Unfortunately, the static wins out.

The Mormon Church has been working hard of late to distance itself from the presidential campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. The Church, which is legally obliged to adhere to the principle of neutrality in party politics to maintain its tax-exempt status, became the subject of a scandal last fall when news was leaked about an attempt by certain high-ranking Mormons to solicit funds among the community to fill the candidate's campaign coffers.

Aside from his membership in the Mormon Church, Romney's archly Republican views (he's against abortion and gun control and for the death penalty and eliminating inheritance taxes) ought to make him a favorite among the ultra-conservative Mormon population. Utah is, after all, preeminent among crimson states. Then again, it's difficult in some ways to understand why a sector of society as rigid in its beliefs as the Mormons would want to support a flip-flopper like Romney in the first place, even if he is one of their own. Far from sticking to those all-important principles, the former Massachusetts governor seems to have changed his position on several issues since deciding to launch his presidential bid. Among the most contentious of these is gay rights. In the mid-1990s, while running for the Senate, Romney said he would more strongly advocate for gay rights than his then-opponent Ted Kennedy. Today, he's against both same-sex marriage and civil unions. Romney would make the perfect Mormon, if it weren't for his unfortunate habit of changing tack.

Romney doesn't make an appearance in Facing East, but the things that the man has come to represent — dangerously intractable conservatism coupled with a lack of conviction at the deepest level for one's beliefs — waft like an ill breeze off the Utah plains throughout Carol Lynn Pearson's thoughtful yet static drama. The play, which premiered at Plan-B Theatre Company in Salt Lake City late last year before arriving at San Francisco's Theatre Rhino via an off-Broadway run at the Atlantic Theatre in New York, centers on the suicide of Andrew McCormick, a 24-year-old homosexual Mormon. Standing at the edge of their son's freshly dug grave in a Salt Lake City cemetery, Andrew's parents, Alex and Ruth, straddle the brittle reality of the present and memories of the past in an attempt to make sense of their son's untimely death.

"The ground has shifted," says a doleful Alex near the start of Facing East. "I don't know where to step." Coming from a man whose entire existence has been built on a solid foundation of unwavering religious doctrine (he even hosts a popular family-values show on Christian radio), this moment of self-awareness is shattering. When Andrew's homosexuality and subsequent death turn the safe tenets of Mormon law upside down, everything that the couple has stood for is called into question. As the even more zealous Ruth says of her steadfast, faith-based approach to parenting, "If we were wrong, then my whole life is a waste and I would wish to be in that grave along with my son. And I would hope there is no Resurrection morning."

Change exerts a crushing force throughout the play. It's at the crux of the characters' struggle to reconcile religious dogma with the fluidity of life in the 21st century. Perhaps the most interesting element of Pearson's drama is the opposition the playwright sets up between the forces of constancy and change. On one side of the equation, the Mormon faith stands rooted to the ground like an ancient oak. The very orientation of the graves in the Salt Lake City cemetery — they face east in order to meet the rising sun on Resurrection morning — is a lesson in the intractability of the covenant. "And what about the poor fools that got buried facing south?" Alex asks his wife at one point. "Why, just hop around a little, get situated. Shouldn't be too hard," Ruth blithely responds. Even in death, good Mormons are expected to put their shoulder to the wheel and toe the line.

On the other side of the dramatic equation, Pearson presents us with a quiet yet persuasive portrait of a changing world. The steady flow of nature imagery acts as a counterpoint to the Temple's rocklike stance. From the sounds of crickets and frogs chirping and croaking in the night, to conversations about growing gardens and changing seasons, the play's vision of an "earthly paradise" offers a persistent allegory about nature's unstoppable and constantly mutable effects. The contrast between constancy and change is also delicately reflected in Randy Rasumssen's set and Cory Thorell's lighting design. An austere rectangle-shaped grave cut into the center of the stage suggests the blank finality of death. Meanwhile, a projected backdrop of frequently shifting, mottled tree shapes and moody, undulating lights creates an atmosphere of uncertainty and movement.

Didactically speaking, Facing East teaches a lesson about the dangers of inflexibility. Yet, for a play so concerned with demonstrating that true love within a devout religious community doesn't necessarily have to be straight love, the mise-en-scène and approach to character are remarkably inert. For one thing, none of the characters undergo much, if any, kind of change during the drama. Alex's personal crisis occurs before the action begins and the character continues in the spirit of self-doubt to the end. Ruth remains opposed to the idea of her son's homosexuality, though she does eventually manage to refer to Andrew's boyfriend by his actual name, Marcus, rather than "that man." Marcus, meanwhile, doesn't have much of a character arc at all. He's distressed, sensitive, and sweetly dull throughout.

The stolid stance of the drama is further exacerbated by the repetitive nature of the conversations. Ruth and Alex spend most of their time on stage talking in circles. Their arguments inch forward incrementally and at times, not at all. The acting also contributes to the unmovable atmosphere. All three actors give controlled, subtle performances, but they remain the same from beginning to end. Alex's pain is irreversibly etched on actor Charles Lynn Frost's body and face. His puffy eyes are weak and watery. He hunches his bearish frame. His big hands hang limply at his sides like broken clock pendulums. But time clearly won't heal his wounds. He remains in that posture throughout the play. Jayne Luke's Ruth wears her grief differently, but it's just as permanent. Her inner confusion and turmoil bubble to the surface, constantly threatening to crack that proud, Mormon poise. Marcus, played by Jay Perry, spends most of his time on stage wearing a sad smile.

The prevailing uniformity has two effects. It makes what should be a tight, 75-minute play feel like it lasts much longer. More fundamentally, it undermines Pearson's attempts to present a better world — one in which high-ranking members of the Mormon Church not only accept a gay couple into their fold, but bless them, too.

Ultimately, of the play's two battling forces, constancy — sticking to the traditional beliefs no matter what — wins out. This spells bad news for anyone trying to be both gay and Mormon in Utah. Which brings us back to Romney. Facing East suggests that there might be more to the Mormon Church's desire to distance itself from the presidential candidate than fiscal disgrace. Change is a frightening concept. Better to steer clear of a flip-flopper. Who knows when he might make his next about-face?



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