Review: ‘Anita Bryant Died For Your Sins’

Despite the provocative title, Brian Christopher Williams' play contains little that's shocking. It's the touching tale of a teenager who realizes he's gay at the same time that Anita Bryant is leading her 1970s crusade against a gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Fla. The play asks the audience to imagine what it must be like to acknowledge your homosexuality when all you hear on the news is that gays are an abomination.

Despite the provocative title, Brian Christopher Williams’ new play contains little that’s shocking. It’s the potentially touching tale of a teenager who realizes he’s gay at the same time that Anita Bryant is leading her successful 1970s crusade against a gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Fla. The play asks the audience to imagine what it must be like to acknowledge your homosexuality when all you hear on the news is that gays are an abomination.

Directed in a well-paced manner by Steven Umberger, it offers an intriguing perspective on a familiar story, set against the backdrop of a turbulent period in America, from the late ’60s to mid-’70s. But so many things happen to the family of young Horace Poore that by the time he comes out, the news carries no real dramatic punch. It’s just another problem for the family to deal with, along with oil embargoes, the energy crisis, Watergate, factory closings and job losses.

The family’s major crisis occurs when Horace’s older brother, Chaz, flees to Canada to avoid being drafted to Vietnam. Horace is left to grow up with just his parents, Etta and Myron, hard-working folks who clearly love and support one another and their two sons. Barbara Bradshaw and Robert D. Mowry, though a bit overwrought at times, create a believable portrait of caring parents who stick together no matter what.

Horace spends much of his time writing his life story on a clunky old manual typewriter in the treehouse that spills out across the stage in Michael Lasswell’s wondrously inventive.

As Horace, Christopher Schram projects sweetness and a bit of mature wisdom. He’s involved and animated when interacting with the other performers, but his narration is stilted.

Timothy Ross physically fits the part of Horace’s gym teacher, a fantasy figure who closely resembles Horace’s hero, Olympic swimming champion Mark Spitz. But he doesn’t give the role much personality. The teacher also is involved in the play’s most contrived elements, involving a mentally disabled woman who lives across the street from the Poores. She exists solely to give Horace an opportunity to stand up for himself.

Elizabeth Palmer is a delight in numerous roles, most notably as a giggly classmate of Horace’s and as Anita Bryant. With her perfect hair and a beauty-pageant smile, she sings the national anthem or “testifies” on TV to the likes of Pat Robertson about the abomination of homosexuality, bringing home the dangers Horace will face as he grows up.

But Bryant is mere window dressing in a play that puts its own spin on cultural and political history. Williams demonstrates a flair for writing humorous banter and crafting characters who have the potential to touch your heart. But that potential is not entirely fulfilled.

Although Williams captures a moving sense of a child reflecting on minor moments in his life that seemed huge at the time, too often the play is more interesting than emotionally involving.

Anita Bryant Died For Your Sins

Florida Studio Theater; 175 seats; $28 top

Production

A Florida Studio Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Brian Christopher Williams. Directed by Steven Umberger.

Creative

Sets, Michael Lasswell; costumes, Marcella Beckwith; lighting, Matthew Adelson; production stage manager, Bruce Price. Opened, reviewed April 15, 2004. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Henrietta (Etta) Poore - Barbara Bradshaw Young Horace - Leo Chappell/ Aaron Siegel Man - Tom Demenkoff Chaz Poore - James McMenamin Myron Poore - Robert D. Mowry Agnes - Karle Murdock Jake Spencer - Timothy Ross Horace Poore - Christopher Schram
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