How do we reconcile our sexuality with our faith? That is the question at the heart of “Next Fall,” a play by Geoffrey Nauffts that opened its Bay Area premiere run Wednesday at San Jose Repertory Theatre.
The play begins in a hospital room, with Holly (Lindsey Gates) chatting nervously with Brandon (Ryan Tasker). Soon, Arlene (Rachel Harker) enters, jabbering away about her chihuahua. We meet Butch (James Carpenter), Arlene’s ex-husband, a quiet man by contrast to Arlene’s ongoing chatter. As an audience, we spend about the next 20 minutes trying to figure out who these people are and why they’re all together here. It’s confusing for a little while, and Gates portrays Holly’s quirks through a too over-the-top performance that doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the cast, especially Tasker’s and Carpenter’s more subtly affecting performances. Still, we don’t know why we should relate to these characters, or even how they relate to each other.
It isn’t until Adam (Dannie Scheie) enters that the plot really begins to pick up. We learn that Arlene and Butch’s son Luke (Adam Shonkwiler) are in the hospital, although we don’t really know exactly what happened, and that he and Adam have been dating for about five years – but his parents don’t know that. Oh, and by the way: Luke is also a devout Christian.
This is where the play’s big questions lie. The first act’s strengths lie in its flashback scenes between Luke and Adam. After the play’s slow start, the audience is eager to learn more details about all of these characters and see this Luke that everyone has been talking about. In a post-one-night-stand breakfast scene, in which a scantily clad Luke gives thanks for his meal before eating, we learn that he is a Christian who believes having sex with men is a sin, despite the fact that he himself does it.
As Luke and Adam progress from one-night stand to dating, we see this issue constantly cause arguments and tension in their relationship. Shonkwiler does a stellar job portraying this complex character whose lifestyle and beliefs are seemingly at odds, and Scheie elicits huge laughs from the audience as the older, neurotic Adam. Their age difference seems wider than the 10ish years the play claims it is, but this is easily overlooked due to their great chemistry, from playful back-and-forth bantering to tension-filled arguments.
The second act is really where the play hits hard emotionally. Harker does an incredible job with Arlene’s monologue about her comatose son, dropping her façade of cheery chatter to reveal the guilt and heartbreak underneath. Carpenter’s Butch gives a solid, stoic performance throughout, never wavering from his beliefs. Scheie shows us that he can not only play funny but can truthfully reveal the utter sorrow that Adam feels. It is a relentless and powerful act, with one poignant and distressing scene after another. By the end, the audience can fully relate to these characters, despite their flaws, and our hearts break for them.
By raising intellectual questions and creating gut-wrenching emotional moments, this play is sure to make a memorable night at the theater. Tickets can be purchased at http://www.sjrep.com/, and 50-percent-off discounts are available for all fulltime students and people 30 years old and younger.