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There is one reason, really, to go see Desert Rose Playhouse’s production of Anita Bryant Died for Your Sins: The absolutely stunning performance by Garrett Hoy as Horace Poore, a young man dealing with the realization that he’s gay in 1970s rural America.

This is not to say there aren’t other great performances in the play; in fact, the entire cast is excellent. So, too, is the direction by Jim Strait. Brian Christopher Williams’ script is compelling, despite a few flaws, and the production values are just as we’ve come to expect at Desert Rose—excellent.

But it’s the amazing work by Hoy you’ll be talking about as you leave the theater. This two-hour play is, essentially, a monologue by Hoy’s Horace Poore. He is narrating his journey as he moves from being a 7-year-old in 1969 who watches in horror as his big brother, Chaz (Alex Enriquez), flees to Canada to avoid the Vietnam War draft, to being a 15-year-old in 1977 who comes out to his family after realizing he’s gay.

The national concerns of the 1970s—that war, a recession, Watergate, the energy crisis—directly affect the Poore family and their Adirondack Mountains community. Horace’s mother, Etta (a homey, hilarious Lorraine Williamson) loses her job in a shirt-making factory due to the economy—and has a hard time finding another due to her age and a lack of a high school diploma. Horace’s gruff but loving father, Myron (a fantastic J. Stegar Thompson), is forced to deal with the sigma of having a draft-dodging son while working as his union’s president. Brother Chaz loses touch with the family until President Jimmy Carter’s pardon allows him to return from Canada. Meanwhile, the entire Poore family deals with the screams of one of their neighbors, a mentally challenged, doll-clutching middle-aged woman named Agnes (Toni Molano).

Heavy topics, yes. However, this play is surprisingly light-hearted, thanks to the charm and awkward, youthful charisma of Hoy’s Horace. While these aforementioned news events affect him, too, it’s other noteworthy happenings that cause Horace’s mind to race. First comes swimmer Mark Spitz’s domination of the 1972 Munich Olympics. Spitz’s historic accomplishments don’t necessarily enthrall Horace—but “bronze God” Spitz’s smooth, muscled body does.

“I’ve always known I was different. Now I know why,” Horace sighs.

Horace is further thrown into turmoil when he stumbles into the middle school locker room one day and spies, naked in the shower, his own, local version of Mark Spitz (and the lust that he represents): Mr. Spencer, the school’s gym teacher (Domingo Winstead). In the months and years that follow, Mr. Spencer and Horace grow close.

Several years later comes a second news event that particularly roils Horace: The emergence on the national scene of Anita Bryant, the singer, beauty queen and orange-juice spokeswoman who took it upon herself to fight an ordinance in Dade County, Fla., that banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. As any American who was alive back then knows, her “Save Our Children” campaign turned her into a prominent spokeswoman for the anti-gay movement. Her popularity rattles Horace; he can’t wait to get the newspaper each day to learn more.

Daniel Vaillancourt and Katie Pavao each play a variety of characters, generally 1970s news figures who emerge and offer visuals and narration to complement Horace’s musings. Pavao spends much of her time earning laughs and stealing scenes as Anita Bryant. (Despite the name of the play, Anita Bryant is still alive, by the way, although her career is certainly dead.)

Williamson and Thompson are fantastic as Horace’s parents. They create nuanced characters who are alternately hilarious, loving and troubled. The two also have great chemistry together; one of the show’s best scenes occurs when an angry Etta confronts Myron after he’s fired from his job. By the end of the scene, the tables are turned: Etta is comforting and consoling Myron. Great stuff.

This play’s problems, minor though they may be, largely involve the chronology and how it’s telegraphed. The play starts with a broadcast of the 1977 World Series, and then suddenly shifts back eight years, to 1969. However, there weren’t enough verbal and visual cues to clearly illustrate this shift right way, and I was left for several minutes wondering what had happened. (A major typo in the program—it lists the play’s timing as “October 1977 and eight years proceeding,” rather than preceding—contributed to my confusion.)

Also: Perhaps I missed something, but it seemed like Horace first glimpsed Mr. Spencer in the junior-high locker-room shortly after Horace’s 1972 Mark Spitz infatuation. However, it wasn’t until Bryant’s emergence on the national scene in 1977 that Horace began talking about soon entering high school. That would mean Horace spent five years in junior high. Huh?

Whatever. Timing confusion is not the point here: The point is that Anita Bryant Died for Your Sins is fantastic because Garrett Hoy is so fantastic. His Horace seems so darned real. We’ve all seen child actors before who, because they are taught to E-NUN-CI-ATE! by their acting teachers, come out onstage and speak like seasoned politicians. Hoy, however, doesn’t always enunciate his words all that well. In fact, at times, he seems to ramble—yet he’s always understandable. In other words, he talks like a 15-year-old. Perfect.

I was also blown away by Hoy’s command of the script. This role would be difficult for a seasoned, veteran performer, as Anita Bryant Died for Your Sins is essentially a two-hour monologue by Horace, with some breaks here and there. Only once during the entire show did I sense that Hoy was having difficulty (and that moment lasted maybe two seconds, total). Brilliant work.

After the show, which concluded with a standing ovation for Hoy, director Jim Strait told me this is the first nonmusical role for Hoy ever. The folks at Desert Rose, the valley’s LGBT and LGBT-friendly theater company, knew Hoy thanks to his role in the company’s performance of Falsettos in Concert two years ago. They were left so impressed, Strait said, that they checked to make sure Hoy was available to play Horace before the company added the play to the schedule as the 2014-2015 season-opener.

“Not bad for a 15-year-old,” I told Strait, grossly understating things

“Actually, Garrett’s still 14,” Strait said.

Wow. Go see Anita Bryant Died for Your Sins, and enjoy one of the best performances you’re likely to see on a Coachella Valley stage this season.

Desert Rose Playhouse’s Anita Bryant Died for Your Sins is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Oct. 19, at 69260 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

For a show to open during these longest days of the year, and attract a packed house, proves that there is wonderful community support for our local productions. That’s exactly what happened on opening night of Southern Hospitality: Lance and Ron Phillips-Martinez and their Desert Theatreworks are clearly doing it right at the Joslyn Center in Palm Desert.

So here’s the question: Can life in the Deep South possibly be as much fun as it’s depicted in the plays written about it? From the hilarity of Sordid Lives and Steel Magnolias to the glorious nonsense of the “Tuna” series and the “Pecan” series, the best comedy of our times seems to be coming from somewhere in Dixie.

In Southern Hospitality, we’re welcomed to Fayro, Texas, where everyone is some kind of nuts. The stage is loosely divided into three different areas, and the first scenes—brief and separated with lighting blackouts, accompanied by instrumental music—make us wonder if this is a revue. However, the characters eventually join up; the story begins, and the relationships become clear. Well, sort of. The four Futrelle Sisters (Frankie, Rhonda Lynn, Honey Raye and Twink) take time from their complicated personal lives to despair at the imminent demise of their town and ponder how it can be saved. The local characters—and this is really simplifying the tangled, mangled plot—come up with the idea of “Fayro Days” … and the planning begins.

The script is marvelous. Dealing with everything from midlife crises to guns to imaginary friends to hot flashes, the characters philosophize wildly. There are references to the “Squat ‘n’ Gobble” restaurant, the “Beaucoup Bouquet” flower shop, and other colorful place names. Fun. Just fun!

Playwrights Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten have combined their considerable expertise and experience to create a wordy but fluffy crowd-pleaser. The playwrights are credited as being among the most produced in America today, with more 3,000 productions … and this play is their newest.

Using a cast of 13 is a serious undertaking, and not for the faint of heart. Only a director with solid old-school skills like Lance Phillips-Martinez would even consider such a challenge. With a play like this, it’s more like “wrangling” than “directing” to move everyone around efficiently but logically.

Lance and Ron Phillips-Martinez have created a company in which actors, when not onstage in a production, are given the chance to learn backstage/sound/lighting/management skills. This used to happen only in summer stock. It is fascinating for the audience to see these actors morph into different characters from one play to another; the company approach also offers a great way for actors to learn. For example, in this production, we see Don Cilluffo, as Raynerd, play the Southern-fried equivalent of a Shakespearean young Fool, though recently we saw him as a mysterious middle-age, dark-cloaked Italian in The Mousetrap. Alden West (is she the busiest actress in town?) appears here as a short-haired blonde in designer-frame glasses and tropical colors, though we last saw her sporting a high-styled tower of black hair and widow’s weeds as she snarled her way through Blazing Guns at Roaring Gulch.

As for the acting: Hmm. There were some inconsistencies in the Southern accents. There were some timing issues, which reflect nothing more than being a little under-rehearsed or first-night jitters. West’s first entrance presented a blocking problem: She spoke her lines with her back to the audience, unlit. One actor’s diction was messed up, either by a sore throat or something going on with her teeth, but it’s back to speech class for her. And, a couple of times, actors tossed away parts of their lines by turning to face the upstage person to whom they were speaking, rather than finding a reason to face the audience. Hey, y’all: We learn nothing from watching the back of someone’s head! It’s one of the most common acting problems, because it is so contrary to real life, but if you want to sock that punch line, you’ve got to let the audience see you and hear it.

Those are the few negatives. Other than that, the mob of actors (Daniela Ryan, Shirley LeMaster, Kathy Taylor-Smith, Kitty Garascia, Hal O’Connell, Alexis Safoyan, Austin Schroeter, Peter Nicholson, Poppy Reybin, Jana Baumann and Domingo Winstead, in addition to Cilluffo and West) tackle their jobs with the brave and noble spirit of the South. It’s not easy to be outrageous: It requires an enormous commitment. You have to combine sincerity with comedic skills and timing, or it just looks like over-acting. Cilluffo is the one who shines at this, with a command of technique that makes him lovable yet hilarious at the same time. A lot of it has to do with his resonant voice and well-used wide eyes.

The cast will grow in confidence. I urge you to see Southern Hospitality regardless of the summer heat.

Desert Theatreworks’ production of Southern Hospitality is performed at 7 p.m., Friday; and 2 and 7 p.m., and Saturday, through Saturday, June 28, at the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre, 73750 Catalina Way, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $25 regular; $23 seniors; $15 students; and $10 kids 15 and younger. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Scott McPherson’s Marvin’s Room, now being produced at the Indio Performing Arts Center, has some big credentials: It premiered in Chicago in 1990, before heading to runs both off-Broadway and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In 1992, it won both the Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk Awards for Best Play, and was adapted into a film in 1996, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton.

At the center of the play are two sisters: Bessie, a woman who is taking care of her ill father and aunt; and Lee, a wise-cracking, somewhat slutty woman who has not helped out Bessie and the rest of her family much at all. When Bessie is diagnosed with leukemia, she is faced with her own looming mortality. Mortality is a topic that playwright McPherson knew all too well: He cared for his partner who died of AIDS, and later succumbed to an AIDS-related illness himself at the young age of 33, in 1992.

Lee comes to Bessie’s Florida home to see if she or one of her two teenage sons can donate bone marrow to save her sister’s life. They also must decide what to do with their infirm relatives if Bessie can no longer care for them. Lee and her 17-year-old son, Hank, have had a tense relationship for years; in fact, the boy has been sent to a mental institution after burning down the house. But Bessie’s wise, loving influence leads mother and son to warm to each other; the door to mutual understanding cracks open just a bit. As Bessie faces her own impending death, she embraces a new sense of gratitude for her imperfect family and for life itself.

Though the play’s main theme is death, there are lots of laughs; McPherson manages to find humor in some very dark places. Subtlety is not his forte, however; for example, the self-absorbed Lee is a cosmetician, a profession that seems to exaggerate her shallowness. Her generous, spiritual side does peek through as she helps a group of local nuns bake their supply of communion hosts each week. Meanwhile, Bessie is battling loneliness, as her one real boyfriend drowned while she and others watched from the beach, thinking his cries for help were laughter. And Bessie’s father, Marvin—confined to bed and seen only in silhouette through the blinds—is not only dealing with the after-effects of a stroke, but is also battling diabetes and colon cancer. We do hear Marvin moaning from time to time and laughing when family members play “chase the flashlight beam” on his bedroom wall.

Pretty much every cast member in IPAC’s production of Marvin’s Room has a few memorable moments. Kirk Geiger, best known for his role in the cult film Sordid Lives, plays Dr. Wally, and is quite funny in the opening scene while trying to draw blood from Bessie, whose panic is rising by the second. Too bad he’s not onstage more often. The always-dependable Louise Tonti (Aunt Ruth) does not disappoint here; she’s hilarious and loveable, and makes us forgive her character’s sometimes-frustrating forgetfulness.

As 17-year-old Hank, Diego Valdez has a great stage presence and some real acting chops. The scenes in which he discusses his possible bone-marrow donation with Bessie, and begins reconciling with his mother, are particularly touching. As younger brother Charlie, Julian Jacobo is adorable and exhibits nice comic flair.

Valerie-Jean (V.J.) Hume (my theater-reviewing colleague here at the Independent) is quite good in her brief scene as the psychiatrist working to bring Hank and Lee together. Domingo Winstead, as Bob, is fine.

The two leads, Denise Strand (Bessie) and Tiffani Lobue (Lee), are strong throughout much of the show. We genuinely feel Bessie’s weariness from the task of caring for Aunt Ruth and Marvin, though we know she loves them dearly. She also skillfully portrays her fears about her terminal diagnosis. Lobue really captures the essence of Lee, and has some nice comic moments—like dumping at entire bowl of candy at a nursing home lobby into her purse. Also, the growing warmth between the two sisters as they get to know each other for the first time is palpable. But like many in the cast, Strand and Lobue occasionally seem to run out of steam. Director Jeanette Knight deserves kudos, though I’d like to see her push the entire ensemble to keep their energy up until the final curtain, as well as pick up their cues a bit.

The set, lighting and sound are all effective, particularly the song selection for set changes.

I recommend seeing IPAC’s production of Marvin’s Room, to remind us that we’re all dying, one day at a time, and that family—and love—is what really matters.

Marvin’s Room is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 6, at the Indio Performing Arts Center, 45175 Fargo St., in Indio. Tickets are $19 to $26, and the running time is just over two hours, with a 10-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-775-5200, or visit www.indioperformingartscenter.org.

Published in Theater and Dance