Friday, November 10, 2006
By Nancy Van Valkenburg
Pearson play addresses LDS couple's attempts to cope with suicide of gay son
Charles Lynn Frost took on his role in the controversial play "Facing East" because of a young man he never met.
"I had a friend whose nephew killed himself this summer," the Salt Lake City actor said. "He did an LDS mission, then he came home and came out about being gay. His father did three terrible things: He disowned him, he kicked him out of the house, and he told him he would have to refinance a new car his father had bought him for completing his mission and pay for the car himself."
The young man was crushed.
"He killed himself in that vehicle, in the garage," Frost said. "He slit his wrists and he asphyxiated himself."
"Facing East," directed by Jerry Rapier of Salt Lake City, opens in its world premiere on Thursday. The play, by acclaimed writer Carol Lynn Pearson, tells the story of grieving parents Alex and Ruth, devout members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who are standing at their son's graveside.
The two are trying to figure out why their returned missionary son, Andrew, killed himself after failed attempts to renounce his homosexuality.
"I myself have known several people who killed themselves because of homosexuality and Mormonism," Frost said.
"The play is very close to me as far as the topics addressed, having been a married Mormon gay man, and having gone through that journey," Frost said. "I have felt feelings similar to those of Andrew and every character in this play. I have come to peace with it.
"And now I am going back through those feelings, being a gay man who is the father of four, and playing a straight man who is father of a gay son."
A woman's mission
Pearson, an active member of the LDS Church, first gained international acclaim with her 1986 book, "Goodbye, I Love You," subtitled "A True Story of a Wife, Her Homosexual Husband, and a Love That Transcended Tragedy."
Pearson met Gerald while both were at Brigham Young University. He had been honest about his homosexual past, but both believed that faith would help him overcome it.
A temple marriage and four children later, Gerald announced he could no longer deny his true self, and the couple divorced. Gerald contracted AIDS, and he came home to die. Pearson cared for him until the end.
"Life has thrust me into a calling of dealing with this subject," Pearson said, from her home in California. "And of course, 'Goodbye, I Love You' opened up this huge invitation for so many people to contact me."
Pearson was stunned by the number of gay men and lesbians wanting to share their stories of rejection by the LDS Church and by other religions. She also was contacted by family members and friends of gays.
"If the statistics are in the ballpark, then 5 percent of people are gay, and probably at least 20 percent of families will discover they have a gay child," Pearson said.
"Families are so ill-prepared. Most of us have some food storage, maybe wheat in our garage, and people always talk about financial preparedness, and earthquake and flood preparedness. But most families are totally unprepared for the news that about 20 percent of families will receive: 'Mom, Dad, I'm gay.' "
Many families react harshly, Pearson said.
"The shock can lead parents to say terrible things to their kids," she said. "Some say 'Gather your belongings from my house and never return.' "
And that reaction is not limited to members of the LDS Church.
"Religion in general is one of the major things that causes anguish on this subject, and being deeply involved in Mormondom, I had to use that for my setting," Pearson said. "A play can't be general. It has to be very specific. I believe that a lot of people could accept that Mormonism would be an authentic microcosm to show what's happening in all conservative religions on this issue."
Page to stage
Frost said he was first interested in the script because of its author.
"I have always been a fan of Carol Lynn's," he said. "I think she is quite an amazing individual, and her books have been, I think, extremely potent and powerful in transforming people. I read the play and I felt it spoke the truth."
Only three actors appear in the play. Ruth is a faithful Mormon and loves her son, but she's ashamed that he couldn't overcome his urges, and heartbroken that he won't be joining the rest of the family in the most elite part of heaven, reserved for God's most obedient LDS servants.
Ruth wants it known that she did her best to teach Andrew right from wrong.
Alex is the father, esteemed in the LDS community for his broadcast teachings as "The One-Minute Dad." Alex rejected his gay son, and was embarrassed to be an LDS parenting expert who did not raise a successful LDS son. Alex cut himself off from Andrew, secretly believing his son could damage his "One-Minute Dad" career.
Alex takes the biggest emotional journey of the three characters.
The last character is Marcus, Andrew's gay partner, mourning the loss of a troubled soul he couldn't help, and both loving and despising the culture that created Andrew, then filled him with so much self-hatred. Actor Jay Perry, of Salt Lake City, plays the role.
"I thought the play left judgment in the eyes of the audience, rather than the playwright or the characters judging for them," Frost said. "The play allows the audience to examine three different perspectives on the same issue. I'm sure most audience members will identify with at least one of the perspectives, and will leave understanding the other perspectives more. I found the play to be truthful."
Actress Jayne Luke, of Salt Lake City, portrays Ruth.
"I read the script, and by the end I was crying, and I haven't been that emotional about things lately," Luke said. "I didn't know why it moved me so much. I think it's because I was raised in the LDS Church and went to BYU, and I knew so many of the beautiful young talented men who went to BYU and were in agony over loving their church and their families, and not understanding who they were. I had seen the struggle firsthand."
Luke said she practices a different faith now, but still respects the LDS Church.
"I was raised in Utah County and have dear and wonderful friends there," she said. "When I go back, I am really attracted to the kindness and goodness that people in the church really strive to achieve. There are many positive things about the religion."
Luke believes the church has softened its stance on homosexuality slightly.
"I don't think the church was as wise in the 1970s as it is now about counseling young gay men," she said. "Now you can be a member in good standing if you are celibate. I applaud the LDS Church for that."
Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the LDS Church, addresses the issue in an interview on the church Web site, www.lds.org.
"It's no sin to have inclinations that if yielded to would produce behavior that would be a transgression," Oaks said. "The sin is in yielding to temptation."
Luke would like to see all organized religions treat homosexuals with even more compassion.
"This is not an issue that is going to go away," she said. "It's not something people can take a pill for."
Luke's character is the least sympathetic in the play.
"I feel nobody sees themselves as a villain," she said, in defense of Ruth. "There are women I love who truly believe they love their children so much that they have to do everything they can to 'save' the child. This woman is sincere in her beliefs. In her mind, she was fighting for the life of her child, and she lost it. She lost the fight."
Pearson, a proud feminist, said it's unusual for her to create a character like Ruth.
"She is sort of the opposite of what I would have expected from myself," Pearson said. "In my work, I try to give the best light I can for women who've been maligned, historically, in a number of ways.
"Making the mother more of the heavy in this piece doesn't really run counter to my personal moderate feminism. Some of her speeches, to me, are very moving in that she is a woman who feels that her only major and real contribution to life, to show she has been a useful person on this Earth, is her family. She's pretty single-minded that she's going to get her family back to the Celestial Kingdom.
"If one of her children sabotages that in any way, it's like destroying everything she has built as a woman. Certainly not all women feel that way, but it is a tendency for Mormon women to feel they will be judged here and hereafter on their children."
Pearson said the God she believes in is gracious and loving.
"As we look at the global situation, I think we are pretty clear on seeing how people's ideas of God divide nations, even within the same religion. In Iraq, divisions of the same religion are killing each other. And there are some of the same dynamics operating in our own families, with being so clear about 'God loves this person' and 'God hates this person.' "
Luke has been a fan of Pearson's since both were at BYU, and even earlier, since Pearson was the best friend of Luke's older sister.
"I've always thought so highly of her work, and of her mind as a woman," Luke said. "I love the courage of her writing in such a lyrical way about things that affected her so profoundly, as well as other people. She is an amazing woman.
"I also knew Gerald, although not as well," Luke said. "He was a beautiful man."
Luke said she appreciates that "Facing East" is not judgmental.
"I don't think it is preachy," she said. "It does present some issues people are not particularly comfortable with. It does say, 'This is an enormous problem that people in our society are faced with, and simply don't know what to do.' "
Raising questions to further discussion is a great first step, Frost said.
"I would hope that Mormons that see it would say, 'Where am I on that spectrum?' I would hope that people who are non-Mormon would say, 'What can I do?' I would hope the gay or lesbian people who could come see the play would choose more courageous actions for themselves, and would choose to be models for love.
"And for those I love most in my life, I would hope there would be pride that I had put myself out there to play this role knowing how hard it will be. People have to learn to coexist and to be OK with everyone."
WHAT: 'Facing East'
WHO: Plan-B Theatre Company
WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Sundays, Thursday-Nov. 26. No show on Thanksgiving.
WHERE: Black Box Theatre, Rose Wagner Center, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City
TICKETS: $15/adults, $10/students, available through (888) 451-ARTS or www.planbtheatrecompany.org.
RELATED EVENTS: Writer Carol Lynn Pearson will hold post-show discussions Nov. 17, 22 and 24, and plans to attend all shows.
The title "Facing East" is a reference to the belief held by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and by practitioners of some other Christian faiths that the dead should be buried oriented toward the east.
The belief is that Jesus Christ will return from the east, and when the dead are resurrected, they should arise facing east in order to meet Christ.