Adam and Steve and the Empty Sea: Review

Saturday night, I braved a winter storm to make the drive to Salt Lake, to see Plan B Theatre’s production of Matthew Greene’s Adam and Steve and the Deep Blue Sea.  Matthew’s a friend, the kind of former student that makes you feel like twenty years of teaching were well worth it.

It’s a two character play, the eponymous Adam and Steve.  They’re life-long friends, from California; we alternate scenes seeing them playing as children with scenes covering their senior year in high school and two subsequent years.  Topher Rasmussen, who was brilliant in Plan B’s production of my play Borderlands a couple of years ago played Adam, and Logan Tarantino, who I don’t know at all, was Steve.  Adam is LDS, but a troubled, uncertain young man; Steve is gay, an athlete and a natural leader, self-assured and confident.  I spent part of the play wondering what Steve was getting out of the relationship, a question that the ending of the play answers wonderfully.

The play essentially focuses on six main conflicts in their relationship:  1) Steve’s coming out to Steve as gay, 2) Adam’s struggles to accept his mother’s remarriage and his brother’s return from an LDS mission, 3) Adam’s decision to serve a full-time mission of his own, 4) Steve’s fury at Adam over the LDS Church’s Proposition 8 campaign, 5) their complete estrangement, Adam in Brazil and Steve at USC, then their tentative letters as they try to reconcile, and 6) Adam’s illness, requiring an early completion of his mission, and the subsequent renewal of their friendship when Adam helps Steve cope with a romantic break-up.

This basic synopsis shows, I think, Greene’s growing sophistication as a playwright.  It’s in part a ‘coming out’ play, about the difficulties of a gay man telling his best straight friend pf his orientation, compounded by their religious differences.  But that’s only one conflict in the play, and an early one.  It could be seen as a strongly political play, about Prop 8 and the damage it did to friendships between members of the gay and Mormon communities.  But that’s only one conflict in the play, and not the most important one. It could be a repentance play, about Adam’s melt-down after his mother’s re-marriage, and how his best friend (who happened also to be gay) helped him negotiate that complex and painful emotional terrain. In fact, though, the play can be defined all these ways, and more.  It’s a rich play, with dialogue of a kind of honest and poetic profanity, with two wonderfully realized characters, both of which have a complexity that resists the simple definitions we might give a ‘gay’ or a ‘Mormon’ character.

Rasmussen brings a tremendous vulnerability to Adam, a young man at times selfish and self-righteous, at times judgmental and mean-spirited, but also a character who grows maturity through a growing sensitivity and kindness.  Tarantino’s Steve seems initially less complicated, the kind of solid, capable, talented young man who would seem to have the world pretty well figured out.  When it’s revealed that he’s been elected President of the USC LGBT Union, it didn’t seem forced–we nod and think, well, who else would they have chosen; the perfect articulate and confident spokesperson.  When we see, in the final moments of the play, the pain and vulnerability that underlies Steve’s got-it-together exterior, though, his friendship with Adam comes firmly into focus.

Randy Rasmussen’s scenic design is both wonderfully playable and thematically spot-on–a ‘tree’ made of scrap lumber, as jury-rigged and seemingly precarious as any genuine human relationship.  One of the great pleasures of all Plan B productions is Cheryl Cluff’s sound design; indie music, with chime bells indicating a change of scene.  I haven’t mentioned Jason Bowcutt’s perfectly calibrated direction, or Jesse Portillo’s lovely lighting.

Before the show, I had occasion to chat with one of the charming little old lady ushers, who told me she’d had a small speaking part in Napolean Dynamite.  She told me this was her second time ushering this show.  She’d volunteered to drive in a snowstorm down Sardine Canyon from Logan because she liked the script and production so much.  I drove home afterwards, twenty five miles an hour from downtown Salt Lake to Provo, tucking in behind a snow plow and taking two hours for what is usually a forty-five minute drive.  And I basked all the way, moved by the performance, changed forever by the script. I see too much of myself in Adam, and drove home feeling chastened.  Good theatre can do that, create a conversation within yourself.  At least that’s what Plan B shows do to me.

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