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Play explores family’s reaction to gay son’s suicide

SHARE Play explores family’s reaction to gay son’s suicide
Jayne Luke and Charles Lynn Frost, front, are grieving parents, and Jay Perry is their son's partner in "Facing East."

Jayne Luke and Charles Lynn Frost, front, are grieving parents, and Jay Perry is their son’s partner in “Facing East.”

August Miller, Deseret Morning News

In playwright, author, poet Carol Lynn Pearson's newest drama, "Facing East," the setting is a cemetery somewhere along the Wasatch Front, where a mother and father are grieving at the burial site of their gay son who has committed suicide on Temple Square.

But Pearson is quick to explain that the drama is not based on the death in February 2000 of 32-year-old Henry Stuart Matis, who took his own life in front of an LDS chapel in Los Altos, Calif.

"Certainly Stuart Matis' suicide is the most well known," Pearson said by phone from her home in Walnut Creek, Calif., "but I did not base any of this play on his story.

"A very dear gay man who had attempted suicide became a close friend of mine. He told me about his attempt, and it broke my heart. A number of those elements show up in this play."

Pearson's new play is based on ongoing correspondence she had with this other young man, who had contacted her following the publication of her best-selling book "Goodbye, I Love You."

The cast of Plan-B Theatre Company's world-premiere production of "Facing East," directed by Jerry Rapier, features Charles Lynn Frost and Jayne Luke as Alex and Ruth McCormick, the parents of 28-year-old Andrew Isaac McCormick. Jay Perry plays Marcus, their late son's partner.

All three performers also portray the suicide victim, along with other roles in various flashbacks.

In the framework of this fictional drama, Andrew's body was found in a flower bed adjacent to the Salt Lake Temple. "My friend's suicide attempt was at another temple site," said Pearson.

Andrew's parents have never met Marcus, who shows up at the cemetery shortly after the funeral. The boy's father asks Marcus if Andrew "killed himself on the temple grounds to make a statement." Marcus replies that, when he and Andrew were first talking about Andrew contemplating suicide, "he felt there would be kind angels hovering there to take him away and take care of him."

"There are so many suicide stories," Pearson said, "and you could pull all kinds of elements from them. That's so sad and bizarre. That particular element — Andrew dying on church property — will have people thinking I took it from Stuart's story, but I didn't."

She says that after writing "Goodbye, I Love You" in 1986, she hadn't planned to revisit the subject. "But the accumulation of all the cards and letters I got after that tipped the balance for me. I thought I had done my work, but the current rhetoric is taking us several steps backward. I was renewing my love affair with the theater and all these things fell into place, and I felt I needed to write about this.

"Gerald, my late husband, gave me a public voice. He insisted I write the first story. Now, with all the many, many people I've talked to in the last 20 years, it's just not a moral-ethical thing to keep quiet about it. We do such an injustice to these people and their families."

Pearson said the play is "just the accumulation of hundreds of contacts. I felt like I knew all three of the characters. I am so familiar with the psychology of the gay Mormon men who give up hope and kill themselves. They feel so condemned after trying so hard to change their feelings. I know what that feels like."

The play's deceased young man, Andrew, does not appear on stage. "But we hear him through his parents and Marcus in 'memory moments.' I sympathize with the two parents as well. Any religious family — and certainly a Mormon family — is not prepared to deal with this subject.

"The parents in my play respond better than some. Some parents have disowned their gay and lesbian children. The parents in 'Facing East' continue to relate to their son and, when they finally meet his partner at the graveside, that becomes a paradigm shift for them — to see that Marcus is just a normal, good boy who loved their son very honestly."

She is particularly concerned about what she describes as "the stuff that I see coming out of the Mormon culture. In today's world we have so much knowledge, and it's inexcusable that we are so ignorant on this subject."

Pearson will attend every performance during Plan-B Theatre Company's engagement and will participate in several post-show discussions. "I think my play will be on the right wavelength. We do bring up some big questions."

If you go ...

What: "Facing East"

Where: Plan-B at the Rose Wagner Center, 138 W. 300 South

When: Thursday through Nov. 26, times vary

How much: $10-$15

Phone: 355-2787

Web: www.planbtheatrecompany.org

Also ...

Post-show discussions: Nov. 17, 22, 24

Book signings: Friday, 6-7:30 p.m., Sam Weller's, 254 S. Main; Saturday, noon-1:30 p.m., Borders, 132 E. Winchester, Murray; Nov. 25, 2-4 p.m., Wise Bird Bookery, Ogden

E-mail: ivan@desnews.com