The rapid change in attitudes and laws regarding matters of sexual orientation may make it harder to remember what things were like only a few decades ago. But in some parts of the country, especially among communities devoted to their religious roots, it often seems as if nothing is different at all.
Baltimore-based playwright Rich Espey took a deep look into that Deep South to fashion "The Revelation of Bobby Pritchard," a provocative, mostly effective work about die-hard beliefs and the toll they can take on those who find themselves in doubt — or doubted.
At one point in the 90-minute play, given its world premiere production by the LGBT-focused Iron Crow Theatre, a character sums up everything with a simple line: "Why do some people think there are choices when there are no choices?"
That's a question people in the Southern town at the heart of the play never considered four decades ago, when 18-year-old Bobby Pritchard drew hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner attention at his local church.
Things are not more enlightened when Marta, Bobby's close friend from those long ago days, returns home with a secret about the past that needs telling, because "an inconvenient truth always beats a pretty lie."
The fact that the notion of choice continues to animate the conversation about sexuality these days only makes Espey's play feel all the more timely and stinging. And the fact that the writing largely avoids polemics and preachiness makes it all the stronger.
This is a work about memory, and, like everyone's memory, it can get a little confusing (actors assume multiple roles to facilitate flashbacks), out of focus and exaggerated as things come back to mind in fits and starts, bits and pieces. And, as in a recurring dream, the most traumatic recollection keeps re-running.
In this case, that re-run is a hail of bullets, moving in slow motion on projections across the back of Mollie Singer's economical, window-dominated set on the Theatre Project stage, which neatly evokes a church and other locales as needed.
The reiterative bullet scene triggers fresh rounds of filling in of blanks as the characters' lives keep flashing before their eyes, until the full story of the past emerges, the full impact of the present registers.
The "revelation" from the title (Espey's choice of that biblically loaded word is perfect) concerns the real way that Bobby Pritchard died, and how his death has been exploited by a center named for him that provides prayerful, orientation-adjusting treatment "for struggling youth."
Bobby haunts Marta in her sleep — a ghost easily fits into a Southern yarn — and prompts her return to a place, a family and a mindset she left behind a lifetime ago. She's accompanied by her wife, Cyn (short for Cynthia, but, sounding exactly like what some folks think when they meet the two women).
History is being relived, Marta discovers. This time, the 18-year-old being urged to fight his sexual inclination is her brother Hank's son, Poss (why the boy calls himself that is one of the most charming touches in the play). The teen's soul mate in the Pritchard Center is Mary Charles, a woman unsure of her gender, but still sure of herself.
Given all that's going on, and all that gets dredged up, what better time and place to have a same-sex church wedding? That community-upending notion gives the drama one more twist.
If Espey's plotting get a little contrived and formulaic, some of his imagery overripe or odd, he adds enough surprises and droll humor (the word "chintz" proves useful) along the way. And he ties things together to deliver a convincing emotional pay-off at the end.
Even underscoring the church-centric milieu — characters frequently break into hymn tunes — serves the drama vibrantly. When Mary Charles adopts a British persona as part of her defense mechanism, it includes breaking a chorus of the great British anthem "Jerusalem."
On opening night, Julie Herber, as Marta, and Heather Peacock, as Mary Charles, proved especially affecting. The rest of the cast, fluently directed by Steven J. Satta, needed a little more confidence, but revealed a good deal of spark and nuance that will likely deepen as the run of this sensitive, timely play continues.