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Weathervane’s ‘Next Fall’ challenges contemporary culture

1/17/2013 - West Side Leader
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By David Ritchey

Scott Shriner (Adam), at left, and Brian Westerly (Luke) star in Weathervane Playhouse’s production of “Next Fall.”
Photo courtesy of Weathervane Playhouse
MERRIMAN VALLEY — Any discussion of religion and sex is sure to intrigue many theater fans. Weathervane Playhouse’s production of “Next Fall” explores both of those explosive topics.

Playwright Geoffrey Nauffts grew up in Hudson and graduated from Western Reserve Academy in 1979. He received a Tony nomination for “Next Fall.” He wrote the script with the language of Summit County and many of the attitudes of Northern Ohio. However, according to the program note, the play is set in Manhattan.

He wrote the play in 14 scenes and without respect for time. The action jumps from the present to the past and, yet, the time changes do not confuse.

The story deals with a romantic relationship between Adam (Scott Shriner) and Luke (Brian Westerley). We watch the men meet, date and make a decision to live together. This couple has several major problems. Adam is an atheist and Luke is a devout Christian. Luke prays before meals and after sex. Adam is almost blasphemous in his attitude about the Bible and religion. At one point Adam turns to Luke, points to heaven and says, “Why can’t you love me as much as Him?”

Luke’s father, Butch (James Rizopulos), has earned his name. He’s big, masculine and demanding. Luke doesn’t have the courage to tell Butch about his relationship with Adam. But, Butch isn’t a fool — surely he knows his son is living with Adam.

Luke’s mother, Arlene (Mary Mahoney), divorced Butch long ago. She begins to understand the relationship between Luke and Adam. Yet, when the moment comes to speak the words, she crosses her lips with her finger and the important words are never spoken.

This same-sex relationship provides the background for important discussions of religion and the American reaction to gay and lesbian couples.

The playwright takes his characters and audience where they may not want to go. A major crisis brings most of the characters to a hospital waiting room. Most of the characters turn to Brandon (Jason Leupold) for support. He carries a Bible and acknowledges he’s not sure he has faith in anything. Arlene comments that the old, familiar stories in the Bible provide some support at a time of crisis.

Don’t worry, this isn’t Sunday School. This is a story of characters facing death and wondering what might be beyond that great journey. These are characters who find their habits of sex tied to honesty within the family and truth within their personal philosophy.

“Next Fall” is an important story. The playwright raises family issues that should be discussed. 

Director Jerimie Newcomb took important risks with the script and the development of the characters. The result is a production that is satisfying and unsettling. Newcomb’s cast is excellent, without one weak link. Shriner and Westerley carry most of the show and do an excellent job fighting about religion, sex and family relationships.

The production has two problems that can be solved easily. The lighting on the hospital waiting room is much too dark. An old rule of thumb about lighting is: “If the audience can’t see, they can’t hear.” Second, the music between the scenes is much too loud.

The production is being staged in Weathervane’s intimate John L. Dietz Theater through Jan. 26. The Dietz Theater seats about 50 audience members. On opening night, every seat was taken. My suggestion is that you call 330-836-2626 and reserve seats now. Due to its subject matter and some adult language, “Next Fall” is recommended for adult audiences.

David Ritchey has a Ph.D. in communications and is a professor of communications at The University of Akron. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.

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