SALT LAKE CITY – In a world where labels seem to be increasingly significant, individuals are constantly reaching out for ways to define their identity, or to reject it. Labels are unavoidable, and at times seem to come naturally. Although it can be nice to easily explain who you are by a few words, this is also exactly the problem with labels. Straight explores how one word cannot completely encapsulate an individual.
As with sexuality, labels are often fluid and possibly ever-changing. Society wants people to fall into these perfectly defined types, but this rarely happens, as labels certainly do not give the whole picture of a person. Straight is about being weighed down by labels. What is taught is how individuals are much more than simply gay, straight, republican, atheist, etc. Personally, I want people to know that I am more than just my identifying labels.
Straight is a three character relationship drama that explores sexuality, gender, fidelity, and identity. Written by Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola, the play received a successful run off-Broadway in 2016. Elmegreen and Fornarola’s script is casual, accessible, and witty, thanks to the contemporary plot and dialogue. Ben (played by John Valdez), a 26 year-old gay male, is in a loving relationship with Emily (played by Andrea Peterson), when he meets Chris (played by Dallon D. Thorup), a 20-year old college student. Ben and Chris begin a relationship and the two fall in love. Ben tries to hide his infidelity from Emily while he struggles with his sexual identity and which path to take. While the play can be somber, it is also surprising and largely humorous, with obscene dialogue that I found hilarious. (The occasional sports jokes are also a nice touch.) Directed by JC Carter, Utah Repertory Theater Company has brought a thoughtful and powerful piece to Utah audiences.
While the script provides smart and sharp comedy, the three actors truly brought the writing to life, infusing existence into the characters that translate as genuinely real and likeable people. As Ben, Valdez is perfect in his complex role. While he is torn between his love for Emily and also for Chris, I was intensely aware of his internal struggle as he wrestles throughout between his thoughts, feelings, and actions. Valdez’s chemistry with Thorup is palpable, and I found these two actors adorably cute in their roles and on-stage relationship. Thorup plays up his youth well, while also displaying a maturity that causes his emotions to be taken seriously. Peterson is equally effective as Emily, displaying believable emotion and connection with the other two actors. All three actors deeply developed their characters and have an extraordinarily realistic chemistry together.
Carter also brought the play to life with precise direction. I was never bored with the action, and was pleased to see the characters move about the apartment naturally with purpose. The best plays are often those where the choices that are made are never questioned. In most productions, even good ones, there is usually still something that breaks my concentration and interrupts my “suspension of disbelief.” I am pleased to admit that I was fully invested in Straight from start to finish. The scenic design, also by Carter, is without flaw. The clean, white, basic living room is agreeable, with the functioning windows being a great touch. Though the play is set in Boston, the LDS temple pictures on the walls gently call to mind Utah culture.
As the audience watches Ben struggle to label himself as gay, it is clear he is afraid of this becoming his only defining characteristic. He feels that once he comes out, he will be known hence force only as “gay.” I have certainly felt this way before; the fear that once people know how I think or feel about something then that is all they will be able to see in me. Even well-intentioned bias or assumptions are often patronizing and upsetting. I was privileged to stay for the opening night talk-back after the production, and the topic of relevance was discussed for some time. Gay marriage has now been legal in some states for almost twenty years, and many homosexuals feel proud and comfortable with who they are. It should be no surprise to our readers in Utah, however, that this is not always the case. Many people still struggle with their sexual identity, and many political climates still do not accept certain lifestyles.
What truly stood out to me from viewing this production though, is that most people will struggle with parts of their personal identity at times in their life, whether it be sexual or otherwise. The feeling of not being able to admit who you are is all too common, and anyone can make choices based on fears about how others would perceive them, rather than how we actually feel. There are few things I find more heartbreaking than this. I hope if anything is gained from viewing this production, it is a desire to live authentically. I believe Straight will continue to be relevant for many years to come.
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