A wide, bitter divide opened in 2008 between the gay community and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over the passage of Prop. 8 in California. “Adam & Steve and the Empty Sea” is a story that attempts to bridge that divide and find some common ground between the two sides.
“From the first time I read ‘Adam & Steve and the Empty Sea,’ I wanted to produce it,” said Jerry Rapier, producing director of Plan-B Theatre Company, which will premiere the coming-of-age story on Thursday, Jan. 31, at the Wagner Center in Salt Lake City.
“I love that it so effortlessly guides us to middle ground in a conversation that many people feel has none.”
The play was written by LDS playwright and Brigham Young University graduate Matthew Greene, who first began working on the play in 2008 when the Proposition 8 debate was raging. The anti-gay-marriage proposition was endorsed by the church and other religious groups.
Greene is an active, straight member of the church. Rapier was raised LDS and is an openly gay man. The two have been collaborating for about 1 1/2 years now to bring the production to the stage, Rapier said.
Set in California, the story examines the friendship between two boys — one gay and the other a straight Mormon — and evolves over the course of several years from the time the two are 8 years old into their early 20s.
Like many childhood friends, the two have a special spot where they meet and share adventures. Adam and Steve’s “haven” is near a “hospitable tree,” where their story plays out.
Steve, played by Layton native and Salt Lake City actor Logan Tarantino, is an athletic, popular and openly gay youth who comes out early in the show to his best friend Adam, who is a Mormon. Adam is played by Sandy actor Topher Rasmussen, a student at Utah Valley University.
“The play centers on the moments between childhood and adulthood, and who better to capture those than two 21-year-old actors and a 26-year-old playwright?” Rapier said.
A staged reading of the play starring the two actors was presented by Plan-B last summer as part of the OUTReach LGBTQ youth summit at Weber State University in Ogden.
Tarantino and Rasmussen are eager for audiences to come see the fully staged version of the play.
Two friends, at odds
The story is lighthearted, funny and poignant, both actors said.
At its heart, “Adam & Steve and the Empty Sea” is a story about love and friendship — even if the sea dividing these two friends is seemingly insurmountable.
“It’s about love .... and the love is what kind of shines through,” said Tarantino, a graduate of Northridge High School. Tarantino, who is not LDS and moved to Utah when he was a youngster, is a junior studying theater at the University of Utah.
Although Tarantino is not gay, he said he can identify with his character on several levels, including being an outsider in predominantly Mormon Utah.
“When I first moved here, I thought Mormon people were a race of some kind ... or tribe of people,” Tarantino said. “That’s how naive I was.”
As the play unfolds, Adam initially appears “OK” with Steve’s sexual orientation.
However, tensions mount as the two friends grow up and grapple with issues of religion, sexuality, politics and adulthood. With the contention over Prop. 8 brewing in the background, Adam decides to serve an LDS mission to Brazil and essentially turns his back on his best friend.
“There’s an order that God established from the beginning with Adam and Eve,” Adam declares in the script.
“Holy s---,” Steve responds “Adam and Eve? If I wanted this, I could just read up on ‘homophobes-dot-org.’ ”
The childhood friends who once played games of tag and hide-and-seek are now at odds as each steps into the tenuous world of adulthood.
What follows is not a cliched, stereotypical examination of the issue, but a layered and nuanced story that is likely to surprise LGBT and LDS audiences.
Rasmussen — who was raised LDS, although he does not practice the faith, and is straight — said the story espouses one of the basic tenets of Christianity to “love thy neighbor.”
“The most beautiful part of religion is when it can bring you closer to each other and not when it pushes you away,” Rasmussen said. “Our relationships with each other is what life is about.”
Prop 8 debate
Greene, who now lives in New York City, said the idea for the play came to him when he was attending school at BYU and Prop. 8 was being vigorously debated.
“I was kind of disappointed with the way the issue was handled,” Greene said — adding that the homophobia and the ignorance on the Mormon side of the debate was met on the other side by vicious attacks on the church.
“I wanted to write something that would explore that,” he said.
Instead of relying on cliches about godless, sex-crazed homosexuals and bigoted religious zealots, Green said he wanted to explore the bonds the two boys share.
Neither is portrayed as a saint. Instead, they are presented in a believable boys-will-be-boys fashion as the story flips back and forth between their childhoods and early adulthood.
Some of the scenes require the two actors to connect with their inner childs — as they play 8-year-old versions of their characters. Rasmussen, who looks young to begin with, said he is having the time of his life capturing the energy and boundless vitality of an 8-year-old.
Tarantino admits that getting the physicality of a child right has been more of a challenge for him, but it’s easier to do with a castmate as talented as Rasmussen.
“Topher is just really awesome,” Tarantino said. “He is really good and crazy and just very natural.”
Likability is key to Adam’s character because at some points during the story, both Greene and Rasmussen said, the character is a jerk.
“Adam sort of bails on his friend,” Rasmussen said. “He has to realize that his friendship with Steve is way more important than his self-absorption.”
Tarantino noted that one of the play’s most telling and beautiful moments comes when Adam comes to a realization that while he was preaching a message of love on his church mission — he’d let go of the best friendship he’d ever had.
“People can love,” a more mature Adam says to Steve near the play’s end. “It’s kind of what we’re ... built for.”
Whether the friendship can be repaired and the two can move forward is answered in the play’s final scenes.
Although the two friends may never see eye to eye on the subject of homosexuality and religion, their relationship and brotherly love trumps the other — at least in Greene’s vision.
“Maybe I can’t set aside my beliefs and ... maybe neither can you,” Adam says to Steve. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t shut my mouth and sit down for five seconds and ... listen. Right?”
That’s a question Greene hopes audience members will be asking themselves after seeing the show. Instead of casting each other in “ridiculous roles,” Greene hopes his play will help to bridge the divide between the two sides.
Since the firestorm over Prop. 8, Greene said he has seen a softening on the church’s side to reach out to the gay community, including the new website www.mormonsandgays.org recently launched by the church.
Although these measures don’t go far enough for some, they are a beginning.
“I look forward to the future when (homosexuality) is not seen as something that is bizarre or wrong,” said Rasmussen. “It’s such a bummer to me that you have to choose to be religious or gay.”
Greene, who said he has received mostly positive reactions about his play from both LDS and gay friends, hopes the show will inspire positive discussions, mend some fences and build understanding.
“I believe that our personal relationships and our ability to love and connect with each other should transcend any cultural, philosophical and religious differences that we have,” Greene said. “Too often, we let the institutions that we belong to destroy our relationships.”