Utah has the country's highest suicide rate for males between the ages of 14 and 25. That grim statistic is given a name and a troubled family in Carol Lynn Pearson's impassioned "Facing East," now at the International City Theatre in Long Beach.
This 80-minute agit-prop takes place at the fresh grave of Andy McCormick, the 24-year-old gay son of upstanding Mormons Ruth (Terry Davis) and Alex McCormick (Christian Lebano). A polite memorial service has just concluded -- during which no one mentioned that the deceased took his own life with a gun.
Alex, devastated by the ceremony's hypocrisy, decides to hold a second funeral right there in the cemetery. (Stephen Gifford's stark unit set features an open grave, several tombstones and four piles of salt.) This time, he tells his resistant wife, they'll speak the truth. Of course, that honesty will implicate everyone in the family. And there'll be a surprise guest: Andy's partner, Marcus (Daniel Kash).
Pearson, a fourth-generation Mormon, deftly sketches a world in which ritual and propriety are all. Alex hosts a popular radio segment, "One-Minute Dad," and has been offered a promotion. This means getting even cozier with the same Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officials who excommunicated his son.
Meanwhile, Ruth has bought into the notion that preservation of family is everything, even if it means thwarting individual happiness. The play doesn't condemn Mormonism, but openly questions whether the religion's strict dogma really stays true to its message of love and community. That critique isn't news, but it is deeply felt.
Director Shashin Desai mines the play's intrinsic drama -- who is to blame for Andy's death -- but "East" stacks the deck in ways that detract from its power as a family study. Andy, it seems, was a saint: bright, handsome, a Juilliard musician and a loving guy. (Gay male playwrights have been tougher on themselves with richer results; see "Angels in America" or "The Normal Heart.")
Lebano drives the action with credible anguish, even when the play lapses into soap. But it's Davis who has the heavy lifting, defending Mormonism's anti-gay stance in the context of her character's upbringing. "Satan won this round," she says, "But things are better this way." Is there a grieving mother anywhere on Earth who would actually believe that?
Pearson doesn't mention Proposition 8, but the same-sex marriage amendment's shadow looms over the evening and gives what might otherwise be an overly schematic piece a stinging relevance.
Behind the question of civil rights, however, lurks something more mysterious: Each of the characters in the play -- not just Andy -- struggles with his or her sexuality. "Why did God make this sex thing so important?" Ruth wonders, distraught. "Because that is what destroyed my son." Scientists, poets, politicians, priests: No one has quite answered that question in a way that satisfies their constituents.
Where: International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 5.
Price: $32 to $42
Contact: (562) 436-4610
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes