A year-and-a-half after enjoying his performance in New Ground Theatre's The Beauty Queen of Leenane, I am glad to see David Turley on a Quad Cities stage again in the company's Next Fall. It was Turley's portrayals of John Hinckley in the Green Room Theatre's 2008 Assassins and William Barfee in the Harrison Hilltop Theatre's 2010 The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee that initially endeared me to his comedic deliveries. And I'm grateful to see him employ his skills as this new play's 40-year-old gay atheist Adam, a character performed with more subtlety than those aforementioned roles, but one that still employs Turley's amusing brand of dry, sarcastic, slightly dark humor.
Just as I hope to see more of Turley's acting, I also look forward to watching Creighton D. Olsen perform again, and hopefully often. He plays Luke - a younger man who falls for Adam while serving at an Overeaters Anonymous gathering - with impressive sincerity and nuance, and the way in which Creighton moons over and flirts with Adam during their first encounter together is notable for its believability and sense of connection. The Christian Luke's faith is also convincing because of the nonchalant way in which Creighton speaks of his beliefs, avoiding any sense of preachiness - although his brand of Christianity is also somewhat wishy-washy. The men's dynamic sets up the theme of playwright Geoffrey Nauffts' piece, which explores the relationship between a gay atheist and a gay Christian, and how they are able to maintain a five-year relationship despite what the world seems to see as an irreconcilable difference between them.
Directed here by Christina Myatt, Next Fall presents fairly common arguments for and against religion, with Luke holding to the belief that homosexuality is sinful - but, because Jesus died for all sins to come, all future sins are covered, including that of gay sex. (This is essentially an excuse to allow for "sinning" to continue, even though Luke seems to believe it as wholeheartedly true.) Adam often counters this belief, and in one particularly touching scene, asks Luke if, according to his beliefs, Matthew Shepard would go to hell, while the men who killed him would go to heaven simply by accepting Jesus Christ. Luke's answer is that they would, which Adam points to as an injustice and an allowance to do whatever you want because Christ has you covered. This idea, the certainty of his salvation, is what Luke cherishes about his faith; Adam, however, sees it as good reason to deny Christianity.
What begins as a staunch belief in the absurdity of religion, though, becomes a crisis of faith for Adam once Luke ends up in a coma following an accident. While waiting at the hospital, Adam comes face-to-face with Luke's divorced parents: Susan Perrin-Sallak's Southern-accented, unwittingly racist, and quite funny Alrene, and Greg Bouljon's self-assured, homophobic, and sometimes self-righteous Butch. They are joined by Max Moline's unaffected, fairly emotionless Brandon, a staunchly Christian friend of Luke's (and a role verbalized by Moline at too fast a pace), and Kaitlin Ross's melodramatic, practiced-down-to-every-eye-roll-and-coffee-sip Holly, an open-minded friend of Adam's. This hospital scene is broken up by flashbacks to various points in Adams' and Luke's relationship, starting with their first meeting and ending with their last conversation prior to Adam's departure for a class reunion.
Given my personal experience on both sides of the faith and sexuality issues, I do think Nauffts' exploration of these themes could be more poignant. There are better arguments both for and against Christianity, the inclusion of which might have provoked more thought about the subjects among those who see the play. However, I appreciate that Nauffts avoids being pushy about one side or another being "right," and includes quite a bit of humor, making this play, if nothing else, worthwhile entertainment. I also admire the way in which Turley avoids playing Adam as a stereotypical atheist - that is to say, as someone who seems angry about religion, pompous in his disdain for faith, and constantly on a mission to disprove God's existence. Adam's personal beliefs are merely a part of who he is as a person rather than the most important aspect of his existence. And this is also what's refreshing about Creighton's performance, in that he avoids being an in-your-face, constantly preaching Christian. His faith, while important, is also just one aspect of his person.
Myatt seems to value Nauffts' approach to these characters, and avoids presenting any clear answers to the Christianity-versus-homosexuality question. While there is an apparent appreciation for the two sides getting along and understanding each other, New Ground Theatre's carefully paced, respectful production of Next Fall contains no perceivable judgment.
Next Fall runs at the Village Theatre (2113 East 11th Street, Davenport) through February 2, and more information and tickets are available by calling (563)326-7529 or visiting NewGroundTheatre.org.