‘You know, before you left you said you were going into the MTC, which I guess must stand for “Mormon Training Center” or something. But when you said it I heard “empty sea.” Like an empty ocean. I never got the chance to ask you, so I just kept wondering why they would send missionaries to some dried up hole in the earth. I pictured a desert ravine in the Holy Land full of handsome young men in ties and bike helmets. Maybe a sea that Jesus walked on and nothing remained but the ocean floor far below where your god had stood.
‘I actually pictured you, squinting into the sun, convinced that something is up there. That maybe it’s not so empty.’ – Matthew Greene, ‘Adam & Steve and The Empty Sea’
Late in Matthew Greene’s newest play ‘Adam & Steve and the Empty Sea,’ which shortly will receive its world premiere by Plan-B Theatre, Steve, a young gay man whose lifelong friendship with Adam has recently cooled to the point of estrangement, pens a letter to his friend who has left for his Mormon mission in Brazil.
Indeed, the bonds of friendship Steve and Adam have shared since their childhood have been severely strained. Even as Steve yearns to have his friend back in his familiar happy form, he worries their differences may be too large to reconcile. Both men stand on opposite sides in the Prop 8 battle in California and neither young man is willing to abandon his principles, as sharply divided as they might appear.
Yet even later in the play, when Adam returns early from his mission because he is seriously ill, Adam, too, yearns to restore his friendship with Steve:
‘What if…Okay. 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.’
Greene’s 90-minute play is an exquisitely crafted piece of balance of emotion and philosophical conviction, following quite naturally and effectively the footsteps laid out in Eric Samuelsen’s ‘Borderlands’ play, which was premiered by Plan-B in 2011. ‘One idea this story explores is that personal relationships can and should transcend divisive forces like politics or religion,’ Greene explains in responses to an email interview. ‘Nothing should impede our ability to love each other, but often so much does. I think middle ground can certainly be reached through healthy debate and open minds, but the easiest common ground to reach is the truth that we’re all human beings capable of connecting with one another.’
Plan-B’s production, directed by Jason Bowcutt, will open its 10-day run Jan. 31 at the Studio Theatre in the Rose Wagner Center of Performing Arts in downtown Salt Lake City.
Greene, 26, a California native who studied with Samuelsen at Brigham Young University, now lives in New York City. Like Samuelsen, as indicated previously in The Selective Echo, Greene is a deeply committed member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), and he uses his work to be a witness to his faith in a subtle, intricate way for an audience that may or may not have encountered this experience of religious participation before.
Greene’s recent work has explored the interplay of religion and politics. In ‘#MormoninChief,’ which premiered at the NYC Fringe Festival last summer, an ordinary man whose politics are definitely suddenly finds himself in a media storm after he innocently tweets statements that apparently were made by a Mormon presidential candidate during an LDS testimony meeting.
However, Greene is most effective at pulling away the soapboxes, microphones, speaker’s platforms and partisan rhetoric to reveal how individuals sincerely explore questions and doubts to overcome the vulnerabilities hampering their personal growth. Greene is careful not to demonize the ultraconservative young man in ‘#MormoninChief’ who appears initially as being anything but open-minded. With Adam, Greene follows a similar approach, while admitting that it was not easy early in the writing process because the character struggles with his faith throughout the play even when he believes that everything has been elucidated. At the point when Steve repeatedly badgers Adam about the silliness of his professed faith, Adam responds, ‘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.’
Greene’s work unquestionably focuses on the idea that a person can safely and comfortably come to their own opinion about religion through a process of reason and faith without being viewed as an act of disloyalty, disavowal, or renunciation of faith. ‘I think a lot of people (myself included) have a complicated relationship with religion because it’s a reconciliation of one’s most personal spiritual feelings and an external institution where those feelings find expression,’ he says. ‘That reconciliation is made more difficult because there are so many people involved in the process: family, religious leaders, fellow churchgoers, etc. What Adam is going through in this play is an intensely personal process of self-discovery but, for better or for worse, he’s not alone in that process. Many religious people are threatened by questions and doubts; I think that mindset is extremely destructive to a healthy spiritual life.’
Jerry Rapier, Plan-B’s producing director, likewise acknowledges the dilemmas of being trapped between literalism and dissent as well as the interpersonal perils of unflinching acquiescence to religious dogma and doctrines – and not just limited to Mormonism. ‘Matthew beautifully navigates the grey area between spirituality and religion in “Adam & Steve And The Empty Sea,”’ he says. ‘He posits that reason and faith can co-exist which makes so much sense but is truthfully – and sadly – a rather radical idea.’
Greene’s writing is an exemplar of balance, sensitivity and, as he emphasizes, ‘honest storytelling.’ Not only is the dialogue so natural and realistic between the characters but the humor also rings through authentically. ‘Humor can come from honesty and I think the even-handed nature of the humor came from my efforts to ensure both characters were honest portrayals, rather than gross caricatures,’ he explains.
The humor is so effortlessly integrated in the script that Bowcutt, as director, takes extra care to ensure that the humor does not risk being overplayed to the point where it mocks or derides one side or the other. ‘What I have to do is have a real respect for what each of them is going through with absolutely no judgment. This keeps me in check that I am not applying my prejudices to the piece,’ he says, adding that when those humorous moments present themselves, they come off as ‘moments of real joy’ between two believable, realistic young men who have been friends for their entire lives.
Bowcutt also is particularly mindful of Greene’s powerfully stated preference for structure in the play, which stays grounded throughout in one location and moves conventionally through time but which also returns quite frequently to a particular day in their early childhood (set in 1995). However, Greene amps up the director’s challenge later in the play when the structure flexes to allow the earlier times to overlap with the present, symbolizing both characters’ desire to hold onto the happiest and simpler times of their friendship. ‘Jason has approached the staging with this kind of simplicity in mind and I’m really grateful for his keen eye in doing so,’ Greene explains. ‘The play has a lot of moving pieces and Jason’s restraint and good taste in staging this play are going to make it clear to the audience what story is being told.’
Equally challenging for Greene’s play is finding a pair of actors of the same or similar age as the characters and who also are up to the task of handling the large amount of humor in the script. For Plan-B’s world premiere, Logan Tarantino is cast as Steve and Topher Rasmussen as Adam. ‘We hit the jackpot with Topher and Logan,’ Raper says. ‘They have an incredibly generous way of working with and off each other.’
Steve, as Greene explains, has a lot of poise and natural confidence but underneath also has enough vulnerability to pierce through that veneer. ‘Logan [Tarantino] really brings an air of self-possession that the character needs but he so beautifully breaks that down during the course of the play to show what’s happening under the surface of Steve,’ Greene adds.
Adam, of course, bears a large part of the dramatic and emotional tension in the play as he attempts to deal with his inner conflicts of faith and spirituality but Greene also notes that the portrayal cannot be burdened with too much emotional heaviness or whining. ‘There’s a lot going on in Adam’s world that he’s trying to figure out and Topher keeps all these plates spinning and plays the character so generously that the audience can track this internal emotional journey throughout the play,’ he explains.
Performances will run January 31 through February 10. Days and times include Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 4 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m.
Tickets for Plan-B Theatre performances are $20 each and can be purchased here or by calling 801-355-ARTS.
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