The ultimate message of Geoffrey Nauffts’ Next Fall goes something like this: Do not put off being true to yourself.
In this drama at Weathervane Community Playhouse, the fact that Luke has hidden his homosexuality from his family for years causes heartache when the people he loves are finally drawn together in a hospital waiting room after he suffers an accident. Luke’s in the next room in a coma as boyfriend Adam (Scott Shriner) and Luke’s intimidating father Butch (James Rizopulos) size each other up and try to make sense of the situation.
This may sound like a downer of a story but Nauffts’ play, for mature audiences only, is actually full of humor and poignant connections. The play, billed as a comedy, comes across more like a drama with a healthy dose of humor at Weathervane. Its story is told through numerous flashbacks to the men’s five-year relationship.
Weathervane newcomer Brian Westerley is funny and sexy as Luke, especially in the flirty scene when the two men first meet at a party. They’re seated on the floor right against a Dietz Theatre wall but from my vantage point, I couldn’t see the two men’s faces. One wishes that director Jerimie Newcomb would move them upstage a bit so everyone can see them in this pivotal scene.
Scott Shriner is the humorously neurotic Adam, who is 40. He doesn’t look much older than Luke, as implied in the dialogue, but we’ll go along.
In this exploration of the clash between religion and homosexuality, atheist Adam can’t stomach the fact that Luke’s a devout Christian. He relentlessly harps on Adam in attempts to disprove his beliefs rather than trying to respect his partner’s faith. All Adam can see is that the world of religion shuts out homosexuals.
That seems too black and white for gay New Yorkers living in this day and age. The play, set in the present, premiered off-Broadway in 2009 and on Broadway in 2010. It also seems a gaping hole that the momentum sweeping the nation for same-sex marriage is never discussed, although it wasn’t legalized in New York until July 2011.
Nauffts, who grew up in Hudson and graduated from Western Reserve Academy, writes in the program that he himself felt like an outsider growing up gay in Northeast Ohio. In his play, characters who display elements of self-loathing include Luke, who is continually conflicted between his religion and his sexuality.
In one of the funniest yet tense scenes, a panicky Luke rushes around the apartment trying to “de-gay’’ it as his father is about to arrive for an unexpected visit.
The most confusing character is Brandon, a very quiet presence played by Jason Leupold. He’s in the waiting room with his Bible for most of the play but we don’t see how he fits into these men’s lives until well into the second act. Sadly, Brandon believes that the greatest sin for a homosexual is to truly love.
Actress Mary Mahoney creates a just-right kooky characterization as Luke’s mother, Arlene. Rizopulos is a threatening presence as the bigot Butch, whose views toward homosexuality are archaic. Kyra Kelley is lovely and funny as Holly, a candle shop owner who’s close friends with Adam and Luke.
People tend to fall back on religion in time of crisis, and Luke’s mother says she finds the ever-present Bible comforting. Holly, too, says she is praying for the first time in years.
The true tragedy of this story is all the wasted years Luke spent in fear of his father’s rejection/retaliation and the resulting distance that created in his relationship with Adam.
The play’s title serves as poetic symbolism about putting off dealing with the difficult issues in life. Next Fall isn’t about resolving its character’s problems, although Luke’s mother ultimately reveals a tacit understanding with Adam. The play sends audiences away with more questions than answers but will keep viewers thinking for many days to come.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.