OREM — Next Fall is a contemporary drama, written by Geoffrey Nauffts, following the lives of Adam (Brian Kocherhans) and Luke (Wade Johnson) and their relationship over a five-year period. Adam, an atheist, and Luke, a Christian, manage to make their relationship work despite their differing ages and religious viewpoints. The play begins in a hospital waiting room after a tragic accident leaves Luke in a coma. While waiting, Adam meets Luke’s family whom he barely knows (despite their five-year relationship), as Luke has been very private about their closeted relationship in fear that his religious family would not accept them. The play flashes back to the various scenes that led up to the present including the first time that Adam and Luke met, how their relationship developed, and backstories of their upbringing that influenced who they are.
The plot was somewhat cliché, with archetype characters written with little depth or unexpected turns. These archetypes included: Luke’s religious and judgmental father, Butch (Eric D. Geels), who refuses to acknowledge that his son is gay; Luke’s mother, Arlene (Angela Dell), who escapes her unhappiness through abusing prescription medication; and Luke’s emergency contact “friend,” Brandon (Kurtis Blackburn), who is conflicted between religion and homosexuality. The writing was preachy, due to Nauffts’s strong agenda; I was frequently pulled out of the show when a scene felt set up solely to tackle a social or political issue rather than focusing on the characters or storytelling. Examples include a “partner” not being allowed into an emergency room because they were not in a recognized/legal marriage and pokes at religious hypocrisy for not accepting homosexuality, though ignoring other biblical passages. Such moments or scenes hit me in the face with social preaching telling me how to think, rather than adding dimension to characters or finding subtlety and allowing me to make my own decisions.
The college actors made a valiant effort to tackle these characters and heavy subject matter. However, I had great difficulty distinguishing relationships between the characters as all the actors appeared roughly the same age and it was challenging to accept any of them to be characters older than mid-twenties. This was very confusing and I wish that the director Kacey Spadafora would have helped to establish relationships between the characters more clearly, as it took several scenes and close listening to the text to distinguish these characters and family relationships. At times, Spadafora’s direction felt unnatural in terms of physicality and blocking, and the actors appeared to be following pre-planned movement rather than moving organically. This lead to a number of awkward moments where physical comedy or conflict felt contrived. On the whole, the comedic moments were not always set up clearly and the dramatic moments didn’t go far enough. The lack of variety in the shaping of the show led to a somewhat flat or one-note show in terms of energy that made many of the important plot points or reveals become lost or glossed over.
Brain Kocherhans as Adam was the standout in the cast. Kocherhans is an actor that fully committed to his character, and brought an engaging naturalness to the part. His mannerisms and choices were believable and subtle, which created a dimensional character that anchored the rest of the cast. However, he was simply too young for the role. The text referring to him being older than his boyfriend Luke and Luke referring to him as “grandpa” (though on stage he appeared younger than Wade Johnson, who played the part of Luke) pulled me out of the world of the play and reminded me I was watching a college production.
Wade Johnson as Luke made bold choices in playing up a stereotypical gay man with flamboyant mannerisms and pizazz. He found some great moments of comedy that lightened the mood and brought humor to serious and heavy moments. He and Kocherhans also and, at times, believable chemistry. The scene where they are both in bed and discussing their fears was a tender moment where I really believed their relationship. It felt genuine and honest. However, many of Johnson’s choices didn’t always feel honest and bordered on cartoonish acting. These choices were not internally motivated and felt “put on,” which led to a fairly one-dimensional stereotype that kept me from becoming emotionally invested in his character.
This same problem also was also an issue with Angela Dell who played Arlene, Luke’s mother. Dell was so focused on the stereotype and injecting the pathos and humor that she lacked dimension and subtly making it difficult for her to honestly connect to the other characters. However, Maddy Forsyth as the shop candle shop owner brought charisma and dimension to the part of Holly and added comedy to a rather serious play. She created a clear character journey in this role where the tragedies of the play made her question her own beliefs and consider the possibility of a higher power.
I had trouble understanding Kurtis Blackburn’s character in the role of Brandon, and I failed to understand his relevance to the storyline. This was a combination of a young actor’s disappointing performance and underdeveloped writing. However, there was one scene that was a standout between Brandon and Holly’s discussion of religion that brought some dimension to the character that seemed largely missing in the majority of Blackburn’s other scenes, and offered insight into the conflict of religion and homosexuality. Eric D. Geels did his best to play the uptight religious father, Butch. He had a commanding stage presence and easily brought out the religious bigotry and narrow-minded thinking. One of his strongest scenes was when he makes an unexpected visit to his son’s apartment and meets Adam for the first time because Adam and Luke go to great lengths to hide their relationship. One of the final moments of the play where Butch embraces Adam in the hospital was also touching. Despite some strong moments, Geels appeared young on stage and brought a youthful energy to the role that did not seem appropriate for the play.
The production on the whole worked well in a black box setting. The level of intimacy allowed for the focus to be solely on the acting and storyline. The simple set pieces and limited technical elements did not detract from the production and the scenes transitioned well from one to the next. Though this production suffered from preachy writing and young actors, I applaud the UVU theatre department and director for tackling challenging material and bringing an edgier show like this to Orem.