The Mormons are back on stage, but it may not be what you think. While the creators of South Park continue to satirize the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Broadway, in Vancouver a more serious and intimate look at the Mormon religion is taking shape, with the world premiere of the new musical, Facing East.
Based on Carol Lynn Pearson’s 2005 play of the same name, this musical version Facing East tells the story of a Mormon couple coming terms with their gay son’s suicide.
Told in a series of flashbacks as the parents linger at their son’s gravesite following his funeral, they attempt to reconcile the link between his sexuality, their religion and the role they might have played in his death.
When they meet their son’s boyfriend in the cemetary, they begin to learn who their son really was.
Pearson writes from personal experience, as her husband of 12 years, Gerald, would eventually leave her to fulfill “his need for an emotional and physical relationship with a man.” Devout Mormons, both Pearson and her husband struggled with his desires and their love for each other. Even as they went their separate ways, they remained connected. Her ex-husband even chose to live out his final days by her side after contracting AIDS.
While Pearson insists Facing East is not a metaphor for the death of her husband, it was their relationship that became the impetus for both the play and her LGBT activism within the Mormon Church.
“I was born into women’s issues and married into gay issues,” Pearson says. “My experience with Gerald brought me to a deep understanding of how badly we treat gay people. Religion should be helpful, and it often hinders.”
Mormon teachings on homosexuality are similar to a number of other religions. Mormons believe it’s okay to be gay as you don’t act on it. It’s a sentiment that Fighting Chance Productions’ artistic director, Ryan Mooney, is all too familiar with, having previously directed Bare: A Pop Opera in 2011. But where Bare took a hardline approach to the Catholic Church’s attitude towards homosexuality, Facing East takes a more balanced approach to trying to reconcile Mormonism and homosexuality.
“That is one of the really nice things about Carol Lynn’s story: you get all sides,” Mooney says. “You have the mother who is very much against the idea of homosexuality, and a father trying to figure out how to put all these things together to better understand his son.”
Nate Gardner, the show’s producer who originally approached Pearson about turning her play into a musical, hopes Facing East gets people talking.
“The show doesn’t come across as being preachy, and it certainly isn’t anti-Mormon,” he says. “It isn’t about religion being bad, or gay being good, but talks about more universal terms of how there is a lack of understanding, and there is still a need for people to have conversations around these issues.”
Though Pearson was very much involved in shaping the musical version of her play, she was originally skeptical that it would work.
“My first impulse was to see all this singing and dancing, which of course is ludicrous,” she says. “But as Nate began to talk about his vision, I realized it was going to be a very moving, contained and emotionally powerful piece; like a small opera that would intensify the emotions.”