A wonderful production of the play Next Fall by Geoffrey Nauffts is currently being staged by the AstonRep company at the BoHo Theatre in Chicago. My apologies to out-of-towners who won’t have the opportunity to see the show, because it is blessed with a gifted ensemble, headed by Mark Jacob Chaitin and Ryan Hamlin in the lead roles.
Hamlin plays Adam, who, unlike the Biblical Adam, has no relationship with God. Yet he finds himself in a long-term relationship with Chaitin’s Luke, a younger man who is a devout Christian. In fact, Luke is so devout that he believes in the Rapture, the plan of Salvation and that his own sexual orientation – and that of his partner – is a sin. An atheist and an Evangelical… hmmm. This does not appear to be a match made in heaven! See the show if you can (playing now through May 25, 2013), but whether or not you are familiar with the play, I think you will find my musings on the characters surprisingly familiar.
Though much is made in the play of the difference between Adam and Luke’s religious beliefs, it is a difference that signifies nothing. Why? Because both men are actively worshiping a god, and this shared act of worship trumps the superficial differences. Luke actually is torn between the worship of two different and contradictory gods – the God of love revealed to him through Jesus and the god of moral judgment represented by the religious authorities of his church. The god of moral judgment demands that he repent of sexual relations, what Adam calls after their first night of lovemaking “some amazing sinning”. Yet Jesus provides Luke with a comforting sense of warmth. He tells Adam that when he accepted Jesus as his Lord, “I felt home. For the first time in my life.” Which god ultimately claims his allegiance will determine Luke’s attitudes towards his own sexuality and his relationship with Adam.
Adam, on the other hand, puts his faith in Science. He finds it easy to debunk Luke’s belief in the Rapture and Salvation with rational arguments. Yet he fails to see that relying on Science to separate fact from fiction is the mirror image of Luke’s reliance on Jesus for the same purpose. Both Science and Christianity make truth claims requiring that believers accept them as, to use the religious language, Lord. Science is as much a god we worship as Jesus. What differentiates Adam and Luke is not that one has faith and one does not. They both have faith, but in different gods.
There is nothing wrong with the act of worship; in fact, there is everything right about it. Worship is the only way human beings come to know themselves. The gods we love are the gods who give us a story to tell about ourselves and that story is the key to our happiness. Unfortunately for Adam, the god he worships is actually making him miserable. Adam had dreams of becoming a writer, dreams that never materialized. For the last six years he has been working as a candle salesman in a friend’s shop. As he contemplates attending his high school reunion at the age of 45, he feels that as a substitute teacher, he’s a failure. Why? Because Adam worships the god of Science’s intimate companion, the god of Success. This god’s story is that Success is measured by respect, fame, and financial rewards. The heroes of the Success story are not candle salesmen, substitute teachers or failed writers. And certainly no Rapture-believing Christian will ever star in a Success story. Immersed in worshiping the gods of Science and Success, Adam believes that the condemnation of gay sexuality coming from Luke’s religious beliefs will only lead to self-loathing. Yet Luke has somehow managed to be happy in his relationship with Adam and even happier with his choice to drop out of law school to pursue an acting career. This is a seriously flawed plot line in the Success story. From Adam’s point of view, his own atheism rooted in Science is much more self-affirming. The story atheism tells is a gay-friendly one in which his relationship with Luke is normal. Oddly, though Adam does not believe in what he deems to be a judgmental God, he feels judged by his peers. Adam suffers from panic attacks, hypochondria and fear of death: all symptoms that, much to Adam’s surprise, do not afflict Luke.
Adam’s story is most seriously challenged by Luke’s lack of fear of death.
LUKE: I’m not afraid like you are, Adam. When the time comes, I welcome it. You could, too.
ADAM: I would love that, believe me. It’s like the one thing I envy you for, to know everything’s gonna be alright. No matter what…
Adam has a serious case of cognitive dissonance! The god of Success promises happiness, yet all Adam feels is judgment. Luke’s god appears to be all about judgment, yet Luke is relaxed and happy. What gives?
Adam has a big problem. Luke’s faith has become a stumbling block for him. As if God were a rival lover, Adam wants Luke to choose between him and God. In the climactic moment of the play, after Adam and Luke nestle playfully on the sofa, they have this exchange:
LUKE: I love you.
ADAM: I know you do.
ADAM: I want you to love me more than you love Him.
Luke has no good answer for this. No answer at all really, and so Adam announces, “I can’t do this anymore,” and walks out the door.
This is not the first Adam in history who has found himself in rivalry with God and then loses his happiness in the bargain. When the first Adam begins to suspect that God is withholding something from him, he tries to take it for himself and loses paradise. There is nothing in the play to suggest that Luke had been withholding any of his love from Adam. In fact, it is just the opposite. Luke’s love is complete, both patient and kind. Adam, however, can’t bring himself to believe in it. The gods of Science and Success have filled his mind with worry and a sense of inadequacy, and he is plagued by a suspicion that something is wrong. So he figures that the wrong thing must be Luke and he blames him for holding back; thereby, Adam loses love in the process.
Next Fall – and the Next Fall and the Next Fall
Is this connection to the first Adam the “next fall” of the play’s title? Luke does promise to come out to his family next fall. But next fall comes and goes and still Luke has not fulfilled his promise. This failure is symbolic to Adam of the distance and difference between them. But blaming Luke for being himself, for being sensitive to his family’s potential inability to absorb his truth, comes very close to replicating the first Adam’s blaming of Eve for his own sin.
When we approach those who love us in a spirit of rivalry, when we blame others rather than admit we are worshiping the wrong gods, we reenact the first Fall. Rivalry and blame lead to the next fall and the next fall and the next one after that. I won’t give away the ending of the play because it’s really worth seeing the AstonRep production. But I will tell you that this Adam finds redemption in the moment when he is able to receive a new story about himself from Luke. In that moment, he tells us, “All the doubts, everything I’ve been questioning for the past five years, none of it meant anything, all of a sudden. It was just Me and Luke. That’s all that mattered.” At last, the false gods no longer compel Adam’s worship and so he begins to tell a more truthful story about himself. Perhaps for Adam this fall will be his last.