Shades of James Agee’s “A Death in the Family.” The storyline of Geoffrey Nauffts’ “Next Fall” revolves around a family reeling from the loss of a loved one in a traffic accident. Some subplots line up too — two central characters to whom religion is the big elephant in their relationship, and alcohol and drug abuse.
But the family depicted in “Next Fall” at Weathervane Playhouse, a Knight Arts grantee, is more of the modern “let’s create a family of our own design” kind. Central characters Adam (played by Scott Shriner) and Luke (Brian Westerley) are in a gay relationship; other “family” members are the self-described “fag hag” Holly (Kyra Kelley), the Bible-toting young gay man Brandon (Jason Leupold), and the spiteful and embittered divorced parents of Luke, the victim in the traffic accident.
The tale is told through jumping around in time. In the theater darkened, the audience hears sounds of the screeching tires of a vehicle and the crash. As lights come up, the characters are gathered in the hospital waiting room.
To get at who all these people are, the narrative jumps back and forth in time – mostly to Luke and Adam’s apartment, but also to Central Park, a rooftop, Adam’s earlier apartment, and a small makeshift temple in Beth Israel.
For some viewers during the performance, the shifts in place and time were extremely confusing, to where they couldn’t tell what was going on. Cues for the changes were there – from a description in the playbill through lighting effects as the small black box stage area was divided into smaller dramatic areas. However, it still apparently got in the way, especially since characters didn’t always significantly change costume to match the shift in years.
Just saying, prepare and be ready so that the tale can have its full dramatic impact.
Weathervane Playhouse’s players did an estimable job. Westerley’s Luke conveyed the stiffness of a closeted gay man bound up by strict religious doctrine, so much so that he seemed to be emotionally unavailable, but clearly alluring. Shriner’s Adam brought, through suppressed excitement, the emotion chemistry that made the couple convincing and likeable.
James Rizopulos, as Luke’s father Butch, had the unenviable task of playing the emotional heavy, with his anti-gay, ethnic-driven, uptight point of view, but he did it with finesse. Mary Mahoney as Luke’s mother Arlene carried the emotional weight of the drama. When she sobbed for her dead son at the end of the play, so did many people in the audience in sympathy with her character.
Kyra Kelley played friend Holly with aplomb – mostly through her silent but telling reactions to other characters. Jason Leupold’s character of Brandon was a mystery until the final scenes of the play, and even then it wasn’t all that clear, but the character seemed to embody the religious conflict in the plot.
“Next Fall” will be presented Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Saturday-Sunday at 2:30 p.m. through January 26 at Weathervane Playhouse, 1301 Weathervane Lane, Akron; 330-836-2626; www.weathervaneplayhouse.com. Tickets are $18 ($5 for college students).