Sunday, August 30, 2009

review - Anita Bryant Died For Your Sins

Anita Bryant Died For Your Sins
written by Brian Christopher Williams/directed by Richard Israel
West Coast Ensemble
through October 4

Every once in a while a play comes along that knocks your socks off. Anita Bryant Died For Your Sins by Brian Christopher Williams is this year's Best Play. I cannot believe that it has not yet had a New York production, but it is to the credit of Les Hanson, Richard Israel and West Coast Ensemble to mount a brilliant and riveting West Coast premiere engagement that I could see over and over again.

Why? First, this is a chronicle of the 70s and Williams' perception of the times and the characters who lived through them is so accurate, it forced me to relive my own experiences. How I trembled at being number 8 in the Viet Nam draft lottery and like Chaz (Nick Niven) would have done just about anything to avoid going to fight in a senseless war. Or how I shivered with pleasure at seeing a perfectly toned male form in the gym shower just as Horace did (Wyatt Fenner). What shame and guilt I felt! Or how my parents cursed at God for not answering their prayers or just plain cursed at everything, like at what I did wrong, which seemed to be just about everything under the sun. What deep hurt we bear as children!

This is a personal memoir of one young boy living in New York state who happens to be gay and trying to find his own voice from age 7 to 15. The play moves backwards in time and shows via TV reporters on the local news channel what was going on in the world and the Poore family's reactions to it all. The Poores are a typical family of real people, who, even when it doesn't seem to be the case, do truthfully care about their kids and their survival. Through some combined efforts at self-improvement and with a lot of faith and support, they do move mountains. Small hills perhaps, but some change is better than none at all.

The ensemble is amazing. Fenner lives and breathes his every moment onstage. Retreating to his tree-house for solitude and comfort (for me it was my bedroom, as we were apartment dwellers), he started to type out his private thoughts and feelings at a tender age, the earmarks of a true writer. Niven makes the rebellious prodigal Chaz an understanding, caring and forgiveable figure. Jan Sheldrick as mother Etta and Tony Pandolfo as father Myron are so believably real in their strengths and flaws, I felt like I was watching my own parents. Nick Ballard as coach Jake Spencer is surprisingly three-dimensional as he essays honestly both the macho and sensitive sides of his complex jock. Sara J. Stuckey is unforgettable as the retarded girl Agnes, who must only use an anguished cry to convey her unfulfilled yearnings. Madelynn Fattibene is terrific in a variety of roles including Anita Bryant, whose twisted Christian morality she wisely underplays, and Sean Owens as the male TV reporters ably completes the sterling cast under Israel's tight, illuminating direction.

This is a play that demands to be seen. For those that lived through the turmoil of the 70s it is as vivid a recollection as you will find anywhere. For those too young to remember, it is a rich and urgent segment of your education. Anita Bryant Died For Your Sins represents, not the hope for perfection, but the hope for a time when we may at least accept the separate beauty and grace that each human being has to offer our world.
5+ out of 5 stars


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