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The first time Jayne Luke tried to tackle New York City was in 1974. The Provo native, then an aspiring actor, was determined to be somebody.
With the move East, she wasn't leaving the religion of her childhood behind, exactly, although that split would occur naturally later. Mostly, she was frustated that she wasn't getting meaty roles at Brigham Young University, frustrated by the theater department's decision to produce Mormon plays rather than classic works.
The young actor - "a chubby ingenue, 24-going on-14" - worked hard. But after four years, Luke found herself living in an upper-west-side flop hotel, still struggling to get small roles in crappy productions. "I wasn't on Broadway; I wasn't even making minimum wage," Luke recalls. And so she asked herself: "Where am I going to be the most effective the soonest?"
The answer prompted Luke to move home, where she has thrived. Over the past 30 years, she has become somebody to local audiences, developing a professional career in Utah as a performer, producer and choreographer.
The variety of Luke's professional credits in Utah - from a 12-year stint as the artistic director at the Sundance Summer Theatre to her recent roles performing senior theater at local retirement centers - adds credibility to the story of one actor's successful return to New York City.
This weekend, at age 56, Luke finally opened in an off-Broadway production, just one subplot in the unusual story of the transfer of Carol Lynn Pearson's "Facing East" from Salt Lake City to the boards of a Chelsea theater.
But Luke's story is also about the power of theater as a local narrative. All this time after she fled Mormon roles, Luke is investing nearly a year in portraying Ruth, an upstanding LDS mother grieving the suicide of her gay son. And what the actor brings to her character is respect for her own mother and all the other faithful Latter-day Saints she knows.
"This part gives me the opportunity to go back and complete what I started," Luke says, "and what is so validating is the opportunity to represent my people."
The power of Pearson: Mormon people, that is, as embodied by Carol Lynn Pearson.
To consider the power of Pearson's name is to consider the writer's influence as an icon of Mormon popular culture. In the 1970s and '80s, Pearson's fans devoured Beginnings and her other poetry collections, flocking to the children's musical "My Turn on Earth," attracted by stories flavored with Mormon teachings about heaven. The popularity of the Mormon writer made the honesty of her heartbreaking 1986 memoir, Goodbye, I Love You, about the death of her ex-husband to AIDS, even more groundbreaking.
The book placed Pearson in the ranks of contemporary Mormon writers to find a national audience, and it transformed her into something of a mother confessor to people all over the world struggling to reconcile sexuality with religion. For two decades, Pearson has routinely received impassioned e-mails and letters from readers who claimed her book saved their lives. Last year, she published those accounts in a new book, No More Goodbyes: Circling the Wagons Around Our Gay Loved Ones.
One of the messages was from Bruce Bastian, co-founder of Word Perfect, then a Utah County Mormon father. Now an influential local arts supporter and nationally known gay philanthropist, Bastian contributed $50,000 to produce last November's premiere of Plan-B Theatre's "Facing East."
It's a story that can change lives, Bastian says about why he donated an additional $150,000 to fund New York and San Francisco productions.
With the unusual transfer of the play, complete with Utah cast and crew, Plan-B hopes to benefit from the happy coincidence of the current national curiosity about all things Mormon. More than a dozen writers, ranging from the gay press to theater Web sites to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The New Yorker, requested review tickets for the unknown Utah company's production before its opening.
"I'm a good gay Jewish boy from Queens, and I'm fascinated by the idea of this play," says Leonard Jacobs, national theater editor of Back Stage magazine.
"It's very rare to have Mormon plotline in a play," says Jack Quinn, publisher of the http://www.TheaterScene.net Web site. "There is quite a buzz in the local theater community and a fascination with the gay Mormon angle."
Changing lives: In Utah, the story's transformative power is changing the life of the small theater company that birthed it.
The play has broadened the Plan-B's mostly liberal Salt Lake City audiences, filling roughly half its seats during the just-finished run with people who appeared to be churchgoing Latter-day Saints, say Luke and company producing director Jerry Rapier.
"This play has been the best development tool we've ever had," says Rapier, who directed the play. "You know something's working when you've got the punked-out queer kid with the spacer in his ear and the Mormon grandma all in the audience."
And just like the theater company, each of "Facing East's" three actors are playing across type.
Luke, a single woman, portrays a Mormon mother. For Charles Lynn Frost, the father of four who plays her husband, the play's themes are familiar territory: In a six-month period during 1994, Frost left the LDS Church and his job as a high-school drama teacher, got divorced after nearly 20 years of marriage and came out as a gay man.
Then there's Jay Perry, a straight, Catholic-reared actor who plays Marcus, the dead son's lover. "Growing up in Utah, I thought I knew everything about the Mormon church," he says, but what he didn't understand was the weight of church members' belief in eternal familial bonds.
For Rapier and everyone associated with Plan-B, the play has sparked conversations about the nature of art. "We have a mission and a reputation for the kind of theater we do - and that's great - but I've been thinking a lot lately about who is theater is for," the director says. "Is it for other theater snobs like me? A friend said 'How many other playwrights do you know who can say someone has come up to them and said: You saved my life'?"
Voice of the people: The language of Pearson's play will never be mistaken for that of classic American playwrights, like Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee or David Mamet. Pearson says she knows she's not a playwright's playwright. But what she gets right, according to Luke, is this: "She's writing in the voice of this people."
To explain the impact of "Facing East," Luke, Pearson and Rapier recount a moment that capped this month's Salt Lake run. An extended Mormon family, 14 in all, gathered from three states to attend the play at the invitation of their brother, Shawn Rhodes. Like the rest of his family, the gay Salt Lake man was raised by a mother who read Carol Lynn Pearson.
It was a controversial decision for some family members to attend a play on Sunday, but that's the only day a block of tickets was available. "In their own words, they said they were crying 10 minutes into the play until the very end," Rhodes says.
Afterward, the group spilled out into the theater lobby, circling up chairs for what turned out to be an extended conversation - "a family testimony meeting" is how Rapier describes it - that lasted more than an hour. "It was unbelievable," the director says. "They couldn't wait to get out the door to talk about it. Literally, how many times can you attend the theater and witness a family change in front of you?"
For Jayne Luke, one speech about family values from the play encapsulates everything that makes the issue of sexuality and Mormon beliefs so complicated. It's a thought so foreign to the way the actor has chosen to live that she has to think about her good-hearted LDS mother, now 96 and still living in Provo, to deliver the line. Ruth says: "My one calling, the only thing to show that I have been a successful person on this Earth, is my family."
As Luke embarks on a New York run more than 30 years later than she planned, she considers that maybe she has arrived at just the right time. She thinks about Ruth, her character, and realizes the role of a Mormon woman will probably be the last her own mother will ever see her play. She knows she had better get it right.
Cool-hand Luke revisited
* "FACING EAST" plays through June 17 at the Atlantic Stage 2 theater, 330 W. 16th St., New York City.
* TICKETS are $40, with a $29.50 Utah rate, available by calling 212-279-4200.
* THE SHOW will play Aug. 10-26 at the Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St., San Francisco. Tickets, 415-861-5079. For information, visit http://www.planb-theatre.org/facingeast.