The aftermath of the ferocious religious debates over Proposition 8 provides a timely setting for International City Theatre of Long Beach’s new production, Facing East. This unexpectedly moving play, written by Carol Lynn Pearson, opens tonight and runs to July 5 at the intimate, recently renovated Center Theatre in the Long Beach Performing Arts Center.
The play introduces audiences to Ruth and Alex, a middle-aged, upstanding Mormon couple who are reeling from the recent suicide of their son, Andrew. Andrew was gay and had been excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. By the end of Facing East, hidden truths have been revealed, mistakes lamented, and faint signs of hope begin to glimmer.
Pearson relates that the play was inspired by a sadly similar, real-life situation. “The closest person to me that is reflected in the play is a friend of mine, Brad Adams, who passed away a few years ago,” Pearson shared. “He became a member of the Mormon Church in Provo, Utah and loved it. He was expecting to be ‘cured’ of his homosexuality and met each week with the bishop to be prayed over.”
Pearson continued: “After Brad decided he was never going to change, he attempted suicide on the steps of the Provo temple. A BYU professor found him and took him to the hospital. Brad survived and moved to San Francisco, which is where I met him.”
A fourth-generation Mormon herself, Pearson says, “The play is an indictment but also an invitation to dialogue. It has received a very positive reaction where it has played so far, starting with selling out its run in Salt Lake City.” Following that successful premiere, Facing East had productions off-Broadway in New York and in San Francisco.
Talking with Pearson, one gets a sense of how much she has grown in her own understanding of homosexuality. She was married at one time to a gay man, which Pearson did not know initially. They subsequently divorced but remained friends, and Pearson cared for him as he succumbed to AIDS. She recounts this experience in her autobiography, Goodbye, I Love You.
Her personal experiences have taught Pearson the lesson she hopes people take from seeing Facing East. It is, according to the playwright, “to believe in yourself before or more than you believe in anything else.” This applies to faith in religions, churches and even God.
Toward the end of Facing East, Alex expresses a sentiment that Pearson heard many of her fellow LDS church members say in the midst of the bitter struggle in California over same-sex marriage: “The truly awful thing is we are better than that.” Pearson indicated that many of the more moderate Mormons she knows were embarrassed by the Mormon Church’s strong backing of Prop 8.
Pearson’s play has even drawn praise in more official LDS circles. The theatre critic of the church-owned Deseret News publication in Salt Lake commended Facing East as the best local production of the year, tied with the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s Hamlet.
“Everyone there (in Salt Lake) had a story about how this subject interested them,” Pearson recalls. “It’s been thrilling to see how healing the experience of watching the play has been for many people, especially families. I’ve received so many e-mails from people saying ‘In our house, the conversation still hasn’t stopped’.” Pearson also treasures the memory of a lesbian viewer in San Francisco who credits the playwright with saving the life of her partner, who was contemplating suicide before she saw Facing East.
As she looks forward to the Long Beach production of Facing East, Pearson is busily promoting her new book, No More Goodbyes: Circling the Wagons around Our Gay Loved Ones. It includes many inspiring stories of families finding new and positive ways to relate to their gay and lesbian children.
Renowned author and rabbi Harold Kushner acclaims Pearson and her latest work “for reminding us that the task of any religion is to teach us whom we’re required to love, not whom we’re entitled to hate.” The potent Facing East also succeeds in this regard.
Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.