In theatre, as in real estate, location is key. Carol Lynn Pearson's play Facing East, about a Mormon couple struggling to come to terms with their gay son's suicide, can't be expected to have the same impact it must have when it premiered last fall in Salt Lake City. But as proved by the production at Atlantic Stage Two, which features the entire original cast, this play is nonetheless a powerful one on the East Coast as well.
That's because, while it may tackle issues of particular interest or importance to one audience, it's ultimately a universal examination of what parents and children can and can't say to each other until it's too late. Though Pearson has some trouble avoiding preachiness, letting her characters declaim slightly too-generic points of view more often than is ideal, she's quite good about not sacrificing her characters, conflict, or color at the altar of the easy way out. Unlike Confessions of a Mormon Boy, which played Off-Broadway last year and gratuitously sexed up its subject's spiritual struggle, Facing East doesn't bear even the slightest trace of exploitation: only truth, simply and beautifully told.
This compact emotional epic, which is tautly directed by Jerry Rapier, covers some 75 minutes in a Salt Lake City cemetery following the funeral of Andrew McCormick. The gifted 24-year-old cellist ended his life just outside the temple with the help of a shotgun, his final statement to and about a church that made him into a person worthy of being loved by his parents Alex and Ruth (Charles Lynn Frost and Jayne Luke) and his live-in boyfriend Marcus (Jay Perry), but that was unwilling to accept him in turn for who he was.
Alex, unsatisfied with the service Andrew received, resolves to give Andrew the proper reckoning before God: The hard-line, doctrinal Ruth doesn't see the point, but Alex, an on-the-rise radio star renowned for his daily "One-Minute Dad" advice spots, insists, and begins conjuring up memories of the boy they raised to become an impressive man, who deeply believed everything he was taught but was still excommunicated as soon as his true nature came to light. Both parents are crippled with grief they've been afraid or unable to show, but which manifests itself when they finally meet the infamous Marcus, who's intent on saying his own final goodbye.
The characters of the milquetoast father, the angry mother with a secret, and the sainted traveler who's come to teach them more about themselves about are not especially complex. And when Ruth brays non-specifically hateful complaints like "The gay lifestyle destroys people," or Alex wittily rants about Utah being "a flaming Red State," Pearson's voice tends to overpower theirs.
But in the details of how the family worked and how Andrew became the man Marcus could meet and fall in love with (by way of a couple of fortunate, yet very believable, coincidences) are revealed very real people all suffering from very different crises of faith. You fully understand who they are and the roles they all played in Andrew's fate; you even come to truly know Andrew, who never appears onstage, but is summoned with a series of flashbacks to representative points in his life that are more touching and less dramatically flimsy than they have any right to be.
The acting is equally solid, with Perry enormously affecting as Marcus: Though young, good-looking, and possessing no end of poise, charm, and humor, Perry convinces you Marcus's life is for all intents and purposes over, and what time is left is all about picking up the pieces. Frost navigates the potentially jagged contradictions of his character smoothly, and modulates his anger with enough humanity that Alex never feels like a screed machine. Luke has plenty of innate warmth that only occasionally escapes from the chilly Ruth, but is a welcome addition whenever it's witnessed.
Ruth would be something of a problem for any actress, though - she's only a few steps away from caricature, and feels like too monstrous a presence for a play fueled primarily by weary rage. But if she makes it seem that Pearson was trying too hard to get her points across, she's all in Facing East that does. It's otherwise an effortless examination of the barriers between (and within) families and religion, and the sad casualties that can too often result from incomplete bridges between the two.