It’s a topic bound to arouse intense, heated passion. Some 25 states, plus over 100 municipalities, have outlawed gay conversion therapy on minors as “pseudoscience” and “child abuse” aimed at altering a person’s inherent sexual orientation or gender identity through psychological or spiritual intervention. In Washington, D.C., the ban applies to adults as well.
There’s a reason why the term “sexual preference” has gone out of use. A person’s basic orientation (with myriads of individual variations and nuances) is not like the choice to wear a blue shirt or a green shirt today: It’s now considered inborn—a big change from the days when homosexuality was considered either criminal or sick. And an individual may also choose more fluid, or non-binary self-definitions, or refuse definition completely. The point is, it’s simply nobody’s business but their own.
In lots of other places, states where fundamentalism and “originalism” hold sway over legislators and governors, conversion therapy continues, alongside bans on trans folk in sports, egalitarian bathrooms, and a wide selection of books in school and public libraries. In fact, the ban on conversion therapy, so hard fought for by progressive youth advocates, is now being challenged on First Amendment grounds. Given the constitution of the current Supreme Court, who knows, this campaign could succeed. The justices could well decide that parents’ rights demand that they and only they, just as they can drag their kids to church every Sunday morning, at least until they’re 18, also have their say in turning their children away from an imagined life of sin and damnation.
Obie Award-winning playwright Samuel D. Hunter navigates this controversial terrain in A Great Wilderness without stereotyping or ridiculing his characters and their “sincerely held beliefs” that seem to have such overweening authority under law.
“A Great Wilderness is particularly personal and dear to me,” Hunter explains. “It’s sort of like a group of people who are clinging to the past. That dynamic, that tension, has always been really interesting to me. It’s also something I don’t see discussed a lot on our stages, which is curious just because we live in such a religious country. I’m so grateful that Rogue Machine is once again giving my work a home in Los Angeles, and choosing to tell this very complex story about very complex people.” This is their fourth L.A. staging of a Hunter play. The company specializes in plays that are new to Los Angeles.
Hunter is the recipient of a 2014 MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship. As a much-produced playwright, his drama The Whale is soon set to appear in a film version directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Brendan Fraser.
Hunter’s play has six characters, directed by Elina de Santos with elegant finesse. They include the elderly (“doddering” might be the appropriate word) Walt (John Perrin Flynn), formerly married to Abby. As someone who reputedly overcame his teenage infatuation with another boy, he has devoted his life to “curing” gay teenage boys, though his newest ward Daniel (Jeffrey Delfin) causes him to question his previously unwavering stance. Walt doesn’t keep track of his past mentees, so he is not quite sure how well he did in “converting” them to the straight and narrow. He’s renowned in the community for not being too heavy-handed with the Scripture and judgment, and is remembered for his intense, supportive listening. Maybe he’s taken these young men under his wing mostly to be in their presence for his own vicarious pleasure.
The married couple Abby (Rachel Sorsa) and Tim (Tony Pasqualini) are co-founders with Walt of this healing program, set in an isolated former Boy Scout lodge deep in the Northwest wilderness, likely Idaho, as the couple have driven up from their home in Coeur d’Alene. They are surprised to learn of the new boy, for their purpose coming there is to close the facility, sell it off to Life Fellowship, and move Walt to “the home,” Shady Grove, whose annoying promo video is practically a seventh character on stage. These two are more rigidly rejective of homosexuality—the lawyer Tim still counsels some boys in his office—but are realistic enough to know that the lodge cannot continue operations.
Within the first hour of his arrival, Daniel goes out the door to take a walk through the woods and gets lost. This gives rise to two more characters: Janet (Tania Verafield), a coolly efficient forest ranger who supervises the search for the boy, and Eunice (Jacquelin Lorraine Schofield), Daniel’s mother from Wyoming, who had sent Daniel to the lodge as a last resort after her husband, a fundamentalist Christian minister and Daniel’s father, had closed off communication with his son.
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These actors seem born to their roles, even though in many cases it must have been hard to convincingly portray characters whose values are so personally repugnant.
Hunter is a sly playwright indeed. At the end of the first act my thought was, “How strange that a writer today would conceive of such a traditionally constructed ‘well-made play.’” (I learned from the talkback afterward that the play dates from 2013.) But he proved me wrong. Act 2 is full of a number of twists and turns, which naturally I shall not reveal here, beginning with its opening scene.
Suffice it to say that the playwright draws on a couple of powerfully iconic Biblical references—one to Isaac, whom his father Abraham is prepared to sacrifice as an act of unquestioned obedience to God; the other to the story of Joseph, whose jealous brothers sell him into slavery, soaking his famous coat of many colors in goat blood to convince their father Jacob that he had been killed by wild beasts. The playwright refers to baptism more than once—a rite of rebirth. The wilderness itself can be like that—a place to be gone, or to be found. And just for good measure Hunter throws in a lightning storm and a raging wildfire.
A box of Daniel’s homegrown heirloom tomato varieties assumes profound symbolic resonance—all I’ll say about that, except insofar as they contrast so tellingly against Walt’s bland offerings of deli meat sandwiches. Walt’s collection of dictionaries takes on deeper meanings, too, in an era when the very meanings of words no longer appear so strictly fixed.
The play has a kind of Buñuelesque feel, with everyone (except ranger Janet) desperately wanting to get out of that lodge but unable to do so. Hunter concludes on an open-ended note, not the expected feel-good resolution all wrapped up in a pretty bow. Discerning theatergoers will find it rewarding to “write” the next scenes in their own minds. What will the ensuing conversations be like? Is this play really over?
And of course it is not, because the controversy is still very much with us, unresolved, and ripe for further exploitation by religious and political ideologues. Don’t forget to register and vote!
Curiously, this is the second play in a row that I’ve seen on this stage that deals with fanaticism and young boys (see The Beautiful People). More commonalities between them are the involvement of Guillermo Cienfuegos, as director of the former and producer of this one, David Mauer as production design of the former and technical director of Wilderness, and Christopher Moscatiello as sound designer for both. Here the scenic deign is by Bruce Goodrich, and it is stunningly rich and detailed.
A Great Wilderness runs through October 31, Fri., Sat. and Mon. at 8 p.m., and Sun. at 3 p.m. (no performance Oct. 10). Rogue Machine (in the Matrix Theatre) is at 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles 90046. Special Pay-What-You-Can tickets are available on Fridays through Oct. 21. Reservations: http://www.roguemachinetheatre.net or for more information (855) 585-5185. Face masks are required to be worn indoors at all times.