There are plenty of comedies about unconvincingly closeted characters, often with a poignant undercurrent: There's a reason the characters can't or won't be honest about their sexuality. Ex-Gays brings that undercurrent right up to the surface, with a story set at a camp staffed by people who are (more or less) convinced they've successfully prayed the gay away.
SpringHouse Ministry Center
This production is subtitled Not a Str8 Remount, a nod to the fact that Savage Umbrella previously produced Ex-Gays several years ago, in a few different versions including a 2011 Fringe show. The intervening six years have seen both landmark advances and huge setbacks for gay rights. Same-sex marriage is now the law of the land, but we also have a sitting vice-president who's expressed support for "institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior."
That certainly describes Camp Str8-N-Arrow, the fictional but unsettlingly plausible institution that playgoers step into when they enter the SpringHouse Ministry Center. With its stained-glass windows and rack of alphabetized nametags, the renovated church is perfectly on-the-nose as a setting for what now functions as a piece of site-specific theater.
Eric F. Avery's script takes us though an abbreviated several weeks under the leadership of Pastor Brian (Eli Purdom) and Associate Pastor Kim (Katherine Skoretz). They're manically enthusiastic about their mission to purge their campers of homosexual impulses, despite the fact that their own impulses are leading them into deliriously infatuated same-sex romances with, respectively, intern Ricky (Matthew Englund) and art instructor Virginia (Alyssa Davis).
A colorful cast of counselors come alive in this superbly acted production, directed by Laura Leffler — who pointed out after Thursday's performance that all the queer characters are played by queer actors, a fact that's particularly meaningful given the show's highly charged subject matter.
Avery, Leffler, and the cast set the production on a knife-edge balance of absurdity and pathos, a tone that's tragically fitting for 2017. To take just one example, Amber Davis contributes a heartbreaking performance as Patsy, the camp's music director and the lonely wife of Pastor Brian. The character works as a caricature of an awkwardly upbeat camp staffer, but Davis holds tight to Patsy's humanity. Her friendship with technical director Pam (Shannon McCarville) pays off in a Love Actually parody that might have you simultaneously laughing and crying.
Ex-Gays inspires more tears, and a lot more laughter. There are the camp songs ("Go Down Moses, But Only On a Lady"), the craft activities (a Bundt cake, with its "glorious hole," is orgasmically frosted), and even some heterosexual haiku. ("Oh look at that thing/ It makes my lady parts smile/ Put it in me...yay!")
Fittingly for a show staged in a church, Ex-Gays is a little miracle. It works as a comedy, it works as a drama. It also works as an act of protest against not just the extreme (though very real) sites of "conversion therapy," but against more common microaggressions and exclusionary assumptions. It's a polished production that hits a raw nerve, and it's a powerful experience.
IF YOU GO:
Ex-Gays: Not a Str8 Remount
Springhouse Ministry Center
Through September 30
Visit www.savageumbrella.org for tickets
SpringHouse Ministry Center