Editor’s Note: The Selective Echo greatly appreciates Mark Alvarez for the review below. Photos are by Rick Pollock.
Time and knowledge complicate lives and relationships. Complication is especially acute in the journey from adolescence to adulthood, a transition full of discovery and unexpected, often unwanted lessons.
Matthew Greene’s ‘Adam & Steve and the Empty Sea,’ the current world premiere production at Plan B Theatre, deals with how two boys in California develop a close friendship then struggle to preserve it as they come of age into very different worlds, one in which ‘MTC’ unmistakably means ‘Missionary Training Center’ while in the other it could be heard as ‘empty sea.’
Central to the play is a tree, under which Adam and Steve often play as eight year olds and to which each of them returns, for Steve at twenty ‘the only place left that still feels like home.’ The understated set for the play had an enormous tree made of wooden planks that one could easily imagine as cool enough for a hangout and large enough to block out the rain.
Though Adam and Steve are played at ages ranging from eight to twenty-one, actors Topher Rasmussen and Logan Tarantino play them throughout. Both actors through dialogue, mannerisms and costume changes effectively portray their characters across the age range.
Rasmussen has a difficult task of playing Adam, who seems to doubt his religion and pass through times of drunkenness and restlessness. Tarantino plays Steve, who is steadier and more self-assured, but who also passes through uncertain and unpredictable moments. Both are excellent individually and in partnership.
The play opens with an eight-year-old Steve counting from ninety-three to one hundred then running in some type of tag game. Steve runs by a twenty-year-old Adam, but neither one notices. Adams is dressed in dark pants, a white shirt and a tie. He wears a black rectangular nametag, typical for a Mormon missionary.
Adam speaks some thoughts in a letter: ‘I don’t think it’s fair we have to come of age so young. If I could try again I might just get it right this time.’ Steve comes back on set, dressed differently and many years older. Steve speaks thoughts in a letter reminiscing on old times.
Then, Adam and Steve are boys playing a game of tag. During a break Adam has brought up a garden ‘where it all started,’ a place in which people could ride on top of tigers until God made the people leave. Steve is skeptical.
Flash forward nine years to Adam and Steve finishing a run. Steve is a track star and someone preparing for an important regional meet. The conversation turns to prom and a party thrown by Travis Walker, who both boys know to be gay. Adam wants to go to the prom, while Steve has planned to go to Travis Walker’s.
Adam is playful throughout the conversation, but Steve becomes serious: he wants to tell Adam something. Adam keeps steering the conversation away from seriousness. After Adam has made a few judgmental comments about gay people, Steve comes out plainly. He makes it clear he has no romantic interest in Adam, but he also stresses how important their friendship is.
The moment is difficult for both boys. Adam stumbles for what to say, and self-assured Steve is suddenly less so. Adam is stunned by he finally concludes: ‘As weird as this is, it doesn’t change anything.’
The friendship winds through the remarriage of Adam’s mother, which Adam takes poorly. In one conversation, Steve perceives whining and tells Adam he is not the first to realize that one can do little about the fact that life sometimes sucks. But a drunken Adam is thinking on other things, even the possibility of a Mormon mission.
Later, during a run, Adam breaks a promise to go to college with Steve. Instead, Adam plans to go on a mission.
A year later, Adam visits Steve at their old tree. On summer break, Steve has been in college a year, and Adam has prepared for his mission. Adam looks very much like a missionary. He asks about Steve’s first year at USC, but Steve is preoccupied by the fact that Adam has been out of touch for a year and by “the proposition.”
Steve is more actively involved in opposing the proposition, but Adam makes clear that he dutifully follows the dictates of his church. As the conversation goes on, Steve and Adam move toward opposing positions until a punch is thrown.
A year later, Steve is home on Christmas break and Adam has returned early from his mission because of unknown health problems. Steve has just been left by a boyfriend he has had for six months. Adam has had his beliefs shaken: a missionary doesn’t get sick, and blessings should have cured his ills. Adam and Steve face uncertainty as the play ends under the tree.
Umberto Eco once wrote, ‘A novel is a machine for generating interpretations.’ Interpretations of this play undoubtedly will vary with each reader and audience member. I am not and have never been Mormon, but my wife Lorena has been a devout member for more than thirty-five years. She grew up in Mexico, where Mormons are a small minority.
Lorena observed that Adam and Steve came from very different worlds. Lorena does not know whether being gay is natural or not, and she suspects she will never know for certain. She said the question was a complicated matter for church members, and she related perfectly to Adam’s lines: ‘Steve. I can’t just keep…compromising for the rest of my life. You know? I’m starting to see in black and white again. And I forgot how good that feels.’
‘Empty sea’ confused Lorena at first. The ‘MTC’ is so well known among Mormons that it is difficult to think it could be anything but ‘Missionary Training Center.’ But coming back to the play, Lorena returned to the dilemma of focusing on one’s own principles or being open to those of another.
I once heard Professor David Knowlton say that if people go into a conversation thinking they have ‘the truth,’ the conversation is essentially doomed from the beginning. ‘Adam & Steve and the Empty Sea’ addresses this through Adam’s words:
‘Maybe I can’t set aside my beliefs and…maybe neither can you. But that doesn’t mean I can’t shut my mouth and sit down for five seconds and…listen. Right? And maybe I’ll have something to say when you’re done and maybe I won’t. But if we can’t just shut up for a minute I don’t know what we’re doing.’
Plan-B’s production, directed by Jason Bowcutt, will continue its 10-day run through Feb. 10 at the Studio Theatre in the Rose Wagner Center of Performing Arts in downtown Salt Lake City. Once again, the production is destined to be a sold-out run with the remaining available tickets for the Feb. 9 performance at 8 p.m. Tickets for remaining performances may become available on a day-to-day basis and interested theater patrons can check the company’s website here.
Tickets for Plan-B Theatre performances are $20 each and can be purchased here or by calling 801-355-ARTS.
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