I came out of the closet in the early 1990s, just when mainstream culture finally started to acknowledge that most gay men are not AIDS-infested pedophiles.

There was a trickle — and then a torrent — of movies and plays designed for a wide audience that dealt with various aspects of coming out and homophobia. From tear-jerkers (Philadelphia) to feel-good empowerment (Beautiful Thing) to bizarre fairy tales (To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), the topic was covered from just about every possible angle ... multiple times.

So to present another coming-out story now, in the 21st century, is risky. But the Unicorn Theatre, not averse to taking risks, is presenting Next Fall, the 2010 Broadway play about coming out, to Kansas City. Could there possibly be any facet of awkward gay relationships that hasn’t yet been beaten to death? Well, it turns out there is.

Next Fall opens with a young man, Luke (played by Rusty Sneary), in the hospital. We meet his family, friends, and boyfriend Adam (played by Charles Fugate). The play then starts to jump back and forth between the hospital and scenes from earlier in the relationship. We see Adam and Luke meet, fall in love, and move in together. Then we see that Luke is not out to his family because of their conservative Christian beliefs, which causes understandable tension. It’s the universal gay conundrum.

What makes this play different and relevant for today is that Adam is an atheist and Luke shares his parents’ religious beliefs. And it’s not the liberal happy Christian version; it’s the old-school Rapture Christianity. Luke believes he is a hopeless sinner because of his inability to stop being gay — he even prays after sex. However, since he has been “saved,” he is completely confident that he is going to Heaven. Adam finds himself struggling to balance his love for Luke with his conviction that Luke’s beliefs are crazy.

This is a more mature and nuanced story about gay relationships than what we’ve seen before. It touches on the very real tragedy of hospital visitation rights of gay partners. But the main focus is squarely on the almost impossible chasm between believers and non-believers. For gone are the days when gay people feel like they must give up their religious upbringing in order to be who they are. It’s a real struggle faced by more and more gay couples today. The script tries hard to provide a balanced look at the two men’s convictions — we can certainly see why Adam has a problem with the irrational (not to mention self-loathing) perspective of Luke. On the other hand, Adam has his own problems and doubts that naturally come with not having a ready-made spiritual structure to slide into.

The cast is small, but formidable Merle Moores and Mark Robbins play Luke’s parents, who are so religious that they’re blind. Heidi Van plays Holly, the fag-hag owner of a candle shop who hired Adam and Luke. Fugate brings an honest anger and vulnerability to his role, while Sneary is brilliant in his blind faith that causes him to make some sacrifices that we’re not sure he is aware of.

Special mention must be made of Doogin Brown, who plays Luke’s old friend Brandon. Initially, I thought he was giving a poor performance, for he was very wooden and cold. However, as the play progressed and we learned more about his character, I realized that my initial assessment was wrong. He provides a key to unlocking the whole play, and especially Luke’s character. Brown’s choices (and those of director Jeff Church) were subtle and spot-on.

Next Fall is a well-written, well-acted portrayal of very real modern struggles. The subject matter is guaranteed to hit home for some audience members, and it will provide much food for thought for days after you leave the theater.
Next Fall plays at the Unicorn Theatre’s main stage through Feb. 12. For tickets and more information, call the Unicorn’s box office at 816-531-PLAY (7529) or visit unicorntheatre.org.

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