Every death leaves a void, and in "Facing East," that void is not only figurative, but literal.
Carol Lynn Pearson's drama, now in its Los Angeles-area premiere at International City Theatre, unfolds at the grave site of 24-year-old Andrew McCormick. The casket has been lowered into a hole that has yet to be filled. Thus, Ruth and Alex, Andrew's parents, linger after the service and begin a dialogue, unearthing private and often painful issues.
Alex (Christian Lebano) and Ruth (Terry Davis) are elders in the Mormon church, and streaks of friction in their marriage run deep. Andrew was gay, causing him to be excommunicated. His increasing sense of isolation led him to take his own life, shocking and saddening all who knew him.
In her tightly-written, intermissionless script, Pearson lays the boundaries rather quickly: His son's death has forced Alex to re-examine his values, coming to the conclusion that he can no longer blindly accept the church's position that homosexuality is a sin.
Ruth, on the other hand, only defends that position all the more staunchly. She has built up a bank of explanations for Andrew's gender orientation, which she calls "the sex thing" - everything in the book, including that Andrew was simply "confused."
Alex craves self-examination, and the more Ruth argues the church's position, the more Alex rakes himself over the coals for not having been more tolerant of Andrew and his lover, Marcus.
Pearson makes her case, often even eloquently - but her polemical, black-and-white, no-subtle-shadings script often rings of artifice, with lines that may be poetic on paper but which lack realism when spoken.
Alex's eventual realization that one of Ruth's secret actions regarding the church may have played a role in their son's suicide is a touch often found in the works of Arthur Miller, whose plays "Facing East" resembles. References to the country as being locked in "a civil war" over gay rights only serve to stoke the play's overly disputatious fire.
After hearing Marcus (Daniel Kash) repeatedly referred to, we finally see him when he visits the grave site. Ruth does her best to ignore him, but Alex is driven to open a dialogue, the better through which to understand his son.
By giving Ruth and Alex a third person to interact with, Marcus's presence bolsters the second half of "Facing East" while delivering the crux of Alex's argument in a line spoken by Marcus: "You can't love someone, yet hate what they are."
As earnest as is director Shashin Desai's fine cast, it takes Marcus' appearance for the play's pro-and-con nature to develop better-rounded shadings. "Facing East" is thus a story of love and expectations blocked, cut off or thwarted (all three McCormicks) and a tale of frogs yearning to be princes (Andrew and Marcus), then being condemned by all for not being so.
Alex is easily the play's most complex figure, and Lebano projects Alex's self-loathing for his hypocrisy. What we see is a plaintive, grief-stricken man at a crossroads in his life, receptive to new ideas after a lifetime of being duty-bound in both religion and marriage.
The missing ingredient is Alex's persona is crushing grief. Were the premise of "Facing East" to unfold in reality, Alex would be constantly suppressing the urge to sob.
Davis shows her character's powerful revulsion toward Marcus by having Ruth keep her back to him. By wanting us to sympathize with her as a grieving mother, though, Davis's performance pulls back from delivering a Ruth we can hate for her rigidity, yet empathize with for her mourning her son in her own way.
Kash's Marcus is polite but direct, inquisitive, and obviously honorable - the kind of person we can imagine Andrew must have also been.
Desai's design team (Stephen Gifford, scenic; Jared A. Sayeg, lighting; Bill Georges, sound and original music) hews to simplicity as their guide. Gifford's set incorporates a vast skyscape, large boulders, mounds of salt, a bouquet of roses to suggest religion in general, and a huge beehive, made from many twisted strands, to suggest the Mormon church in particular.
While it may not perfectly encapsulate its chosen scenario, "Facing East" is at least oriented in the right direction - that of tolerance and acceptance.