Geoffrey Nauffts’ Next Fall is that rare play that delves into a hot-button issue without quickly resorting to stereotypes. Yes, you’ll recognize the characters, but that’s because the playwright’s wit is delivered by Actors Bridge Ensemble performers that make every moment believable.
There’s Luke, a young aspiring actor and fundamentalist Christian; Adam, a hypochondriac and Luke’s atheistic 40-something romantic partner; Luke’s divorced parents, gregarious Arlene and no-nonsense Butch; Brandon, a former lover of Luke’s; and Holly, the owner of a shop Adam and Luke have both worked for (apparently selling an inordinate amount of pumpkin-scented candles).
An accident puts Luke into intensive care at a New York hospital. As he clings to life we go back and forth between the present and past moments in the five years Luke and Adam have known (and loved) each other. Will different standpoints on religion – particularly where homosexuality is concerned – break the human ties that bind?
Nauffts’ play doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of bigotry – at one point Butch has a line where he manages to utter not one but two despicable slurs – but it doesn’t paint one side as saints and the other as sinners in either a spiritual or secular sense. That means it serves not only as drama but the springboard for further thought and discussion (Actors Bridge had after-show talk-backs on March 23 and 30 with the cast as well as ministers, attorneys, LGBT activists and others as part of that discussion).
Phil Perry’s wonderfully modulated performance as Butch is a prime example of this play’s strengths. His Florida-based businessman is not some strange live-theater variation of Foghorn Leghorn or the second coming of Big Daddy, which is how many similar characters in plays written by non-Southerners come across; he’s an educated and articulate modern man who has chosen to embrace a staunchly conservative take on Christianity. Perry, like his colleagues, knows the “less is more” acting philosophy is certainly the right thing to do in a snug space like the Actors Branch Studio, and that yields great dividends when an event forces Butch to reveal the emotional turmoil that’s been lying just beneath the surface throughout Next Fall.
Nashville Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Denice Hicks has been cast in a role that’s one of her best acting platforms in years. A lesser actor might let eccentric Arlene get away from her, but not Hicks: like a runner setting the pace for others her energy serves from the start to give the play its rapid but unrushed feel, and whether she’s rambling about being a “wild child” or relating the painfully distant relationship she’s had with her son Arlene takes our hearts though Hick’s sublime choices.
Joe Blankenship as Brandon and Kara McLeland as Holly capture the awkwardness of being friends, but not current lovers, spouses or family, with Adam (in Holly’s case) and Luke (in Brandon’s case). No matter how strongly we feel about our friends and friendly acquaintances, there’s typically a point where we can’t involve ourselves in their lives as those with the ultimate romantic or familial ties can without negative consequences; Blankenship and McLeland’s characters both have moments where they reach that boundary in Next Fall and the actors make it fascinating to watch as Brandon and Holly approach that line.
Without giving away a very big plot point Adam makes quite a journey in this play; Chuck Long is the artist that guides us on that trip with often-subtle shifts of expression. His Adam is not a caricature but someone we know, care about and root for. No matter how good playwriting can never accomplish that completely; only when an actor as adept as Long is gets cast does complete connection between audience and a pivotal character like Adam become possible.
Conway Preston has as tough a job as anyone in this show. Yes, he’s young and good-looking, which we know from the script is essential for Luke. But if his character is just another handsome young man Luke becomes an ineffectual plot device; Preston breathes full conflicted life into his performance, making this already engaging experience all the richer for his efforts.
This is Richard Puerta’s professional directorial debut, and it is an auspicious one; his previous theatrical work, including acting in several productions, has paid off in bringing this complex project together at ABE’s studio. Don Griffith’s always-ingenious set designing means the small space becomes multiple places without losing the realism this play demands; McLeland’s sound design and original music are great fits for Next Fall, as are Preston’s costumes and the lighting designs of Richard Davis and Patrick White.
Next Fall has been well-regarded by critics and others since its 2009 Off-Broadway opening (it later transferred to the Great White Way in 2010). Nauffts (himself an actor) certainly deserves much of the credit for the success of this play, but those folks putting the work on its feet at Actors Bridge Ensemble deserve high praise for turning a good script into a compelling two hours of contemporary theater.
Actors Bridge Ensemble’s production of Geoffrey Nauffts’ Next Fall continues through April 6 at the Actors Bridge Studio (LeQuire Gallery Building, 4304-F Charlotte Ave., rear entrance). Shows are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday as well as 4 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20 online in advance at http://abe-next-fall.eventbrite.com and $25 at the door. For more info on the show and Actors Bridge Ensemble visit actorsbridge.org.
*Photos by John Jackson Photography courtesy Actors Bridge Ensemble.