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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Facing East

By David Avery

What if we were wrong?—Alex, Andrew's father, over Andrew's grave.

The subject of religion and homosexuality is pretty topical these days given that several states have legalized gay marriage in the wake of the Proposition 8 controversy in California. Mormonism and homosexuality is just as topical, as evidence that much of the pro-Prop 8 funding came from Salt Lake City. Amidst this highly publicized debate, Carol Lynn Pearson debuts her latest play Facing East at ICT.

The play depicts a devout Mormon couple struggling with the suicide of their gay son Andrew. The story unfolds at the son's open grave, immediately after the formal funeral. Andrew's father Alex (Christian Lebano) calls the funeral a sham and declares they will redo it now, with just him and his wife Ruth (Terry Davis). While his son's death has shocked Alex into questioning his Mormonism, Ruth is staunchly convinced that faith is the only solace in their tragedy and clings to it with apparent desperation.

Their debate over the merits of their faith and the cause of their son's death is quiet and introspective, contained within Stephen Gifford's simple set consisting of a an open grave, a couple of gravestones, and what I think were supposed to be pillars of salt (that's a Sodom and Gomorrah reference for those keeping track). Jared Sayeg's lighting design helps the grieving parents relive various moments from their family's past by isolating the parent who's speaking as the other parent serves as the voice of the dead Andrew. It's a poignant affect that works well in providing the audience with insight into how Andrew ended up as he did.

It turns out that he was excommunicated from the church and rejected by his parents after he came out. The parents wrangle over right and wrong, religious determinism and insecurity. Lebano's portrayal of a grieving father realizing that life isn't as easy as sticking to the "rules" is fairly sympathetic, but Davis has the heavy lifting here as a mother doing everything to justify her actions and clinging to her faith as if it were a life preserver. The two are joined late in the play by Andrew's boyfriend Marcus (Daniel Kash) which brings another perspective to the debate. Fortunately the conversation is not full of histrionics and grand statements, but is personal and poignant.

Without a doubt, playwright Carol Lynn Pearson has been on the front lines of the religious debate about homosexuality. She is (was?) a Mormon married to a man who admitted to gay encounters. They eventually divorced and he, after returning to gay relationships, died of AIDS (she acted as his nurse as he declined).

Facing East confronts the position of the Mormon church on homosexuality and how it can tear families apart, creating rifts between parents, children, and community. Many people will see the play as a depiction of a family coming to grips with a child's death, but while the death may be a catalyst, what this mother and father are really coming to grips with is their religion and Pearson is exploring the role of religion in our lives.

I have three complaints about this otherwise excellent play. One, it's a bit long. While the muted nature of the character's conversations contribute to the message, the same issues are rehashed one or two times too many. It's a minor point and, given that the play is just 75 minutes long, not overly bothersome.

Secondly, Pearson it objectifies Andrew as a tortured saint. OK, so this is an artistic device used to drive the action, but suicide is never anybody's "fault" except for the person pulling the trigger (or whatever). Yes, people can be cruel and unfeeling and yes, they can turn their backs on someone in need. But the bottom line is that Andrew killed himself in a world where there are literally thousands of avenues of support and help.

Finally, and at the risk of offending a lot of people, the plawright pre-supposes the necessity of religion and faith. In all of these debates over homosexuality and religion, we can't really have an honest discussion of the issues because we're not really allowed to talk about the possibility that all this "belief" and "religion" is a byproduct of evolutionary psychology. And so, we don't have one character raising the idea that if a bunch of self-appointed zealots dictating social norms can cause a rise in the death rate of young adults, perhaps we should re-examine religion as a viable social institution.

Facing East by Carol Lynn Pearson
Directed by Shashin Desai
Cast: Christian Lebano (Alex), Terry Davis (Ruth), Daniel Kash (Marcus)
Sets: Stephen Gifford
Sound: Bill Georges
Lighting: Jared A. Sayeg
Costumes: ???
Stage Manager: May M. Rodgers
Running Time 75 minutes without intermission
International City Theatre
300 E. Ocean Boulevard, Long Beach, CA 90802
Tickets: $37/32 Thurs., $42/37 Fri. - Sun.
Thurs. - Sat. @ 8pm, Sun. @ 2pm
Opening 6/12/09; closing 7/5/09 (no performance 7/4/09).

Reviewed by David Avery at the June 14th performance.
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