In “Facing East,” Carol Lynn Pearson likens America’s bitter divide over religion and sexuality to a civil war. She has earned the right to that comparison, since she’s had experience on the front lines. Her 1986 memoir, “Goodbye, I Love You,” chronicles Pearson’s time as a Mormon wife married to a gay man who left her, came out of the closet, contracted AIDS, and then returned to her to die. Similar pain pervades “Facing East,” in which a couple goes to their son’s funeral and meets his boyfriend for the first time. Their graveside talk makes room for a spectrum of conflicting opinions, but they all share the same sorrow.
Structurally, the piece resembles the last scenes of a Greek tragedy, when the major catastrophe has struck and the only thing left is the suffering. When we meet them, Pearson’s characters have already endured a climactic event — Andrew, a young gay Mormon man, has committed suicide — and more importantly, they have already changed as much as they can.
Andrew’s father, Alex (Charles Lynn Frost), who hosts a radio advice show for parents, enters the play knowing he was a hypocrite for preaching parenting while ignoring the suffering of his own child. Ruth (Jayne Luke) already senses that she must keep calling her dead son a sinner if she wants her devotion to Mormonism to mean anything. And Marcus (Jay Perry) is well aware that he equally loves and hates the religious culture that made his late boyfriend so kind yet so self-loathing.
These personal revelations would usually define a play, and without them, “Facing East” becomes a vivid rumination on grief, regret and shame. The action, such as it is, comes from people trying to articulate what they have learned. Standing around the grave-shaped hole of Randy Rasmussen’s impressionistic set, they let each other know how they have changed in order to fully grasp it themselves.
Rather than advancing any one perspective as correct, Pearson crafts all her characters with sympathy. Her insightful writing proves that well-meaning love guides Alex’s anger just as much as Ruth’s insistence that she’s honoring her son by refusing to accept his sexuality. But even though the play doesn’t have a villain — and even ends with hope — it never suggests that a shared tragedy can close an ideological divide. Ruth and Marcus may both miss Andrew, for instance, but that doesn’t mean either one is going to drop a lifetime of beliefs.
That’s not a cheery conclusion, but it feels honest. The same goes for Jerry Rapier’s direction, which cloaks the play in silence. Long moments of stillness — and perfs built from restrained sadness instead of wailing hysterics — make the loss in the play feel hard and real.
The hush also justifies a potentially problematic device in which the characters interact with Andrew’s memory. At regular intervals, one of them steps into a spotlight, faces the audience, and plays out a moment from the past. From the dark, another actor speaks Andrew’s lines, and we learn about each character’s relationship to the man in the ground. It’s a bit syrupy when the actor in the shadows uses a “little kid voice” to play Andrew as a child, but the near-sacred stillness of the production keeps the scenes engrossing.
The 70-minute play, which bowed last year at Rapier’s Plan-B Theater in Utah and will travel to San Francisco’s Rhinoceros in August, would land even harder if it were trimmed a bit more. Since grieving conversation is the only trick in its bag, the script occasionally feels repetitive. But a few moments of been-there-cried-over-that don’t diminish the overall elegance of this lament for a civil war.