Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Next Fall

Having grown up Southern Baptist, I know a little about the concept of "once saved, always saved." Contrary to how it may sound, it's not a license to kill: a Christian who has accepted Christ doesn't get a free ride to Heaven, regardless of the heinous deeds committed on Earth. If this nefarious individual is truly repentant and asks for forgiveness, the belief is that he/she will receive it; but there are Christians who unrepentantly commit such horrendously un-Christian crimes that I feel certain can, if Hell exists, look forward to an eternity consigned to it. As I understand it, "once saved, always saved" assumes that the "Christian" is actually striving to follow the teachings of Christ, so a mere public profession of faith is not enough: if Christ is truly in one's heart, that person will resist temptation and evil desires.*

In his play, Next Fall, Geoffrey Nauffts has given the defense of "once saved, always saved" to Luke, a young gay actor who is in a long-term relationship with an older writer/teacher, Adam. Adam has no religious beliefs while Luke is a conservative Christian who considers their relationship to be a sin that must be forgiven by God; this causes a fair amount of tension between them. Unfortunately, Luke is unequal to the challenge of actually defending his faith: when asked why a gay non-Christian would go to Hell while the murderers of Matthew Shepard, should they be Christian, would go to Heaven, his response is, essentially, "That's just the way it works." Of course, this is unacceptable to Adam (in addition to being wrong): who would worship a God as unjust as this? I had a momentary impulse at this point to stand up and politely disagree (fortunately, I was able to suppress the impulse).

As the play opens, Luke has been critically injured in an accident; his divorced parents have flown to New York from Florida, his friends have gathered at the hospital and Adam has quickly returned from a high school reunion. Luke's parents don't know that he is gay, let alone that he and Adam have been partners for five years. The lines of tension in this situation—who is considered family for visitation, who will make the life-and-death decisions, who knows best Luke's wishes—are immediately apparent. It will come as no surprise to anyone in the audience that this story cannot end happily.

The Naked Angels production is well-acted, capably directed and has a cleverly designed set by Wilson Chin that allows for the play's multiple locations to be revealed from within a single hospital waiting room. The script has loads of funny lines, most of them smartly delivered by Patrick Breen as the sardonic Adam; I'm actually, though, getting a little tired of the character who uses a wicked sense of humor to avoid coming to terms with love, death, relationships, sexuality, religion or any of the other realities of life—it's in danger of becoming a cliché. Nauffts has, for the most part, sidestepped the potentially deadly melodrama inherent in his script; even the inevitable hospital room confrontation between Adam and Luke's father, Butch—while highly charged, emotionally—is relatively restrained.

Ultimately, I found Next Fall to be engaging but not satisfying. Luke (Patrick Heusinger) isn't given the ability to maintain his side of the dialectic with Adam; Butch (Cotter Smith) isn't given the opportunity (in fact, any credibility Butch might have in the play is completely undercut by his homophobia and his racism—a superfluous addition, in my opinion: we already get that he's narrow-minded and hypocritical). The one other person of deep faith, a long-time friend of Luke's who is also gay, suffers from a more extreme version of Luke's self-loathing: he doesn't provide any new perspective on homosexuality and Christianity, so his big scene in Act II isn't really necessary (the actor, Seth Dugan, however, does a good job with this slim role). And because Adam is always the one to bring up the issue of faith and is able to present his side of the argument so much more adeptly, his continuous revisiting of the topic makes him seem to be the source of most of the tension in their relationship, not Luke. It's unfortunate that Nauffts chose not to explore in this direction: it might have made a much stronger piece.

*I found an excellent article on this website that discusses whether or not "once saved, always saved" is actually a cornerstone of the Baptist faith. The author makes an excellent argument that it isn't but that many Baptists believe that it is.

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