Stage: Wednesday, March 01, 2006
Jennifer Knight stars as an evangelical Christian coping with her best friend, Jason Thomas Mayfield, who comes out of the closet.
Thru March 12 at Stage West in the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, 1300 Gendy St, FW. 817-STG-WEST.
Ben Gay

In Stage West’s latest production, the bloody crossroads where homosexuality and religious fundamentalism meet is reduced to a mere fender-bender.


Stage West’s world premiere of Embracing, a drama about the clash between religious fundamentalism and homosexuality written by Baylor University drama department chairman Stan Denman, couldn’t be more timely, nor its construction sleeker and more straightforward: College roommates and friends since childhood, Traci (Jennifer Knight) and Ben (Jason Thomas Mayfield), must struggle to reconcile his newly confessed gayness with their deeply conservative evangelical backgrounds. Rather, Ben seems well on his way to finding some kind of compromise within himself, while Traci believes that accepting his “lifestyle” is a moral trade-off she can’t make. Unfortunately, with too much surface-level rhetoric and self-consciously choreographed verbal fencing, Embracing winds up trivializing them both.

As written by Denman, both Traci and Ben are strangely unappealing characters mired in typical college-age solipsism. To simplify matters: She seems like a hypocrite, he a narcissist. Before he comes out to her, Traci laughs about his mother’s concerns that they might “dress provocatively” while shacking up and thus tempt each other, and then she simulates fellatio on his chocolate-dipped finger to demonstrate that she has, in fact, always had something more than friendship in mind. Yet she’s able to summon proud, Phyllis Schlaflian moral principles when Ben finally admits to her he’s always been boy-crazy. Once out of the closet, Ben blasts house dance music, leaves his beefcake porn lying around, and sneaks sexual partners in and out of the apartment while she sleeps. And in one bizarrely written scene, the pair bond over an incident in which Ben accidentally drives over the neighbor’s dog with his car, breaks its back, and kills it. The funniest detail to them is that the animal urinated before it died. At a recent matinee performance, this exchange went over like a lead balloon with the older audience in attendance.

The major problem with Stage West’s production of Embracing is simple but fatal: Under the direction of Jim Covault, these two attractive young performers lend more energy and enthusiasm than nuance and depth to their roles. With most of the dialogue set somewhere between warm- and hot-confrontation mode, it’s absolutely essential that the audience believes a lifelong friendship, a connection practically as intimate as a marriage, is on the line. Knight and Mayfield are much more arresting when they’re up in each other’s grills, so to speak, than when they wring their hands and worry about their future as best pals and confidantes. Rather than highlighting a major cultural conflict of our time, their horn-locking feels like it could be addressed with a simple, avuncular: “Friends grow apart sometimes. It happens. Now get separate places.”

With the emotional stakes so low, the show inevitably devolves into a game of score-keeping by the audience, and Traci seems to be playing with one hand tied behind her back. The issue isn’t whether Knight’s character has the right to believe that homosexuality is an absolute moral wrong that should be condemned — she most definitely does — but whether this belief and its murky roots can be presented in a dramatically compelling fashion. The playwright has not found a way to do so in this script. Knight just slams doors and says “I can’t believe it, I won’t believe it!” when presented with information she doesn’t like.

This is a vice that can surely be shared by gay activists and Christian conservatives alike, but Embracing works so hard to show respect to Traci’s fervent anti-gay convictions that all the effort makes her views seem shallower simply because they can’t be articulated with any more precision than “God doesn’t like it.” The show inadvertently suggests that religious fundamentalism is precisely the kind of intellectual, moral, and spiritual dead-end that those mean ol’ liberal elitists have always suspected it is. Knight can work up an impressive steely-eyed resolve in defending her views on scripture, but her role is kind of a lead weight for a medium that demands some sense of character development if the actors are to do anything but stand under the lights and chatter for 90 minutes. Even flighty, promiscuous Ben appears to go through some evolution in the course of the performance — coming out of the closet, rejecting his family’s faith, and then slowly finding his way back to prayer and some form of that faith. Traci begins and ends in the same space on the game board, which is perhaps part of Stan Denman’s point: One of the things biblical literalists seem proudest of is a principled refusal to change their minds on certain issues. But short of turning fundamentalists into villains or comic figures (which they complain, correctly, that scripts have often done), there’s just not a lot of rich material to be found in that kind of approach to messy, unpredictable humanity.

We’re living in the age of the “faith and values voter,” when a new kind of political correctness mandates that everyone should respect an individual’s religious beliefs even if they endorse discrimination against sexual minorities in the public arena. Embracing is very much a product of this era, an utterly fair but overly schematic attempt to contribute a dialogue along the “let’s give both sides a fair hearing” line. (At press time, though, there was no movement within the gay community to deny Social Security and income tax benefits to evangelical hetero couples, so it’s debatable exactly how even the playing field is in Gay v. Fundamentalist.) But the characters feel so hastily, erratically conceived that the play runs like an extended, racy version of one of those high school conflict-resolution sketches directed by a counselor who’s hyper-concerned with everyone’s sensitivities. The average patron will enter the Stage West theater knowing that many conservative Christians harbor a deep-seated revulsion toward and disapproval of same-sex romance and that those Christians will outspokenly defend their feelings to the ire of gays and lesbians. After the Embracing actors have taken their bows, patrons will realize that the playwright has told them what they already knew and little else. The mutual airing of grievances can be cathartic, but it doesn’t make for surprising or enlightening drama.

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