Waiting in a waiting room can be ugly.
I did it a few years back with my family, waiting for my father as he underwent a major surgery. Everything about that experience was surreal – waiting for what seemed like hours for a surgeon to come and tell you any news. Sitting days later as the calls of “Code Blue” come through the intercom at any moment, while my family wondered if that might be for him. And the need to go in and help, just to feel needed even though you know there’s not a damn thing you can do but hurry up and wait some more.
This for me is what is so utterly painful and ultimately, so genuinely magical about “Next Fall,” the powerful show currently running at San Jose Repertory Theatre. The story is told as a series of flashbacks, meshed in with the current moments that take place in a waiting room of a hospital.
Luke (a joyous and thoughtful performance by Adam Shonkwiler) has been in an accident, one that now looks at the reality of his organs being packed in an ice chest and sent to others for their survival. There are Luke’s parents, the fundamental Christian Butch (a phenomenal James Carpenter) and Arlene (the gem Rachel Harker), who sit and wait like everyone else, except when it comes time for action to happen. The fact that Luke never officially came out to his parents doesn’t take away the obvious fact that Adam is not simply a “friend.” Things have been shared, whether subtly, accidentally or blatantly. No matter. It is Luke’s parents that have the privilege of taking turns at his bedside. They rush into Luke’s room when the doctor needs help. And they are there when the doctor needs to talk to the “family.”
And this next part is what hurts the most – there is also Adam (the great Danny Scheie in an absolute tour de force performance). Adam does not get the privilege of making decisions. He does not fit into “family.” Hell, he’s not even acknowledged as anyone more important than the person who changes Luke’s sheets. Never mind that this is a man whom Adam comes home to every night. This is a man who holds the key to Adam’s heart. And Adam and Luke have found warm love like so many others, and have vowed their lives to each other.
The sharp writing of Geoffrey Nauffts and the extraordinary pacing from director Kirsten Brandt on a magnificent set designed by Annie Smart beautifully shapes the play itself. Brandt’s direction is able to exploit both of the main issues of the play with gentle and forceful fluidity.
There is the issue of the hospital. And there is the issue of religion. Adam is a worshiper at the house of atheism, and is always ready to provide pedantic, yet thoughtful criticism of religion. Yet Luke is committed to his prayer, his ritual of a blessing before meals, and his steadfast refusal to be drawn into issues that take away from their love. They are opposites, but with love as their guide, they make it work. Even though Adam responds to anything holy with sharp, catty snark, it does not take away Luke’s ability to find the warmth in the gaze of Adam, more than a few years his senior, brilliantly portrayed with nuance by both actors.
What is so powerful about the play is that it’s not easy to vilify any of the main characters for their various beliefs. Even Butch, which was handled so amazingly by a man of Carpenter’s acting skill and range, was a character who seemed to desperately make an attempt to understand his son, even having a very genuine conversation about a theatre production Luke participated in. And even though there were moments where Butch fought for that understanding, there was simply too much distance between he and his son, which made Butch’s payoff in the end so powerful.
Harker, who was dazzling in a production of “The Glass Menagerie” a few years back, channels her southern charm again here. While she provided plenty of humor (I particularly enjoyed her consternation of trying to train her Puerto Rican Chihuahua), where Harker positively shone was during her brilliant monologue with Scheie in act two. Notice her focus, her deep connection to commitment in that moment. Put in Scheie’s brilliant listening and discovery, and the two were an absolute showcase of acting chops at its finest. Add in the pragmatic humor of the charming Holly, played with much needed humor by Lindsey Gates and the noble stoicism of Ryan Tasker’s Brandon, and you have a cast that cohered brilliantly.
Ultimately, what makes this piece so powerful is that it stays with you long after the curtain closes. And through all the issues that are brought out in this play, it is the simple words that Adam says which are the hallmark as to why we need to sit in hospital rooms, and why gay couples have suffered so long as they were shut out until January of 2011, when federal rules extended visitation rights to gay men and lesbians. If only someone could have listened to Adam say these words about his beloved Luke, they might have seen that he truly was “family”:
“He means so much to me.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
San Jose Repertory Theatre presents “Next Fall”
Written by Geoffrey Nauffts
Directed by Kirsten Brandt
Through Nov. 10th
The word: An important play that moves, and doesn’t leave you when its over. A powerful evening of relevant theatre.
Stars: 4 out of 4
San Jose Repertory Theatre
101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose, CA
Tickets range from $14.50 to $69
For tickets, call (408) 367-7255 or visit www.sjrep.com