There is one reason, really, to go see Desert Rose Playhouse’s production of Anita Bryant Died for Your Sins: The absolutely stunning performance by Garrett Hoy as Horace Poore, a young man dealing with the realization that he’s gay in 1970s rural America.
This is not to say there aren’t other great performances in the play; in fact, the entire cast is excellent. So, too, is the direction by Jim Strait. Brian Christopher Williams’ script is compelling, despite a few flaws, and the production values are just as we’ve come to expect at Desert Rose—excellent.
But it’s the amazing work by Hoy you’ll be talking about as you leave the theater. This two-hour play is, essentially, a monologue by Hoy’s Horace Poore. He is narrating his journey as he moves from being a 7-year-old in 1969 who watches in horror as his big brother, Chaz (Alex Enriquez), flees to Canada to avoid the Vietnam War draft, to being a 15-year-old in 1977 who comes out to his family after realizing he’s gay.
The national concerns of the 1970s—that war, a recession, Watergate, the energy crisis—directly affect the Poore family and their Adirondack Mountains community. Horace’s mother, Etta (a homey, hilarious Lorraine Williamson) loses her job in a shirt-making factory due to the economy—and has a hard time finding another due to her age and a lack of a high school diploma. Horace’s gruff but loving father, Myron (a fantastic J. Stegar Thompson), is forced to deal with the sigma of having a draft-dodging son while working as his union’s president. Brother Chaz loses touch with the family until President Jimmy Carter’s pardon allows him to return from Canada. Meanwhile, the entire Poore family deals with the screams of one of their neighbors, a mentally challenged, doll-clutching middle-aged woman named Agnes (Toni Molano).
Heavy topics, yes. However, this play is surprisingly light-hearted, thanks to the charm and awkward, youthful charisma of Hoy’s Horace. While these aforementioned news events affect him, too, it’s other noteworthy happenings that cause Horace’s mind to race. First comes swimmer Mark Spitz’s domination of the 1972 Munich Olympics. Spitz’s historic accomplishments don’t necessarily enthrall Horace—but “bronze God” Spitz’s smooth, muscled body does.
“I’ve always known I was different. Now I know why,” Horace sighs.
Horace is further thrown into turmoil when he stumbles into the middle school locker room one day and spies, naked in the shower, his own, local version of Mark Spitz (and the lust that he represents): Mr. Spencer, the school’s gym teacher (Domingo Winstead). In the months and years that follow, Mr. Spencer and Horace grow close.
Several years later comes a second news event that particularly roils Horace: The emergence on the national scene of Anita Bryant, the singer, beauty queen and orange-juice spokeswoman who took it upon herself to fight an ordinance in Dade County, Fla., that banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. As any American who was alive back then knows, her “Save Our Children” campaign turned her into a prominent spokeswoman for the anti-gay movement. Her popularity rattles Horace; he can’t wait to get the newspaper each day to learn more.
Daniel Vaillancourt and Katie Pavao each play a variety of characters, generally 1970s news figures who emerge and offer visuals and narration to complement Horace’s musings. Pavao spends much of her time earning laughs and stealing scenes as Anita Bryant. (Despite the name of the play, Anita Bryant is still alive, by the way, although her career is certainly dead.)
Williamson and Thompson are fantastic as Horace’s parents. They create nuanced characters who are alternately hilarious, loving and troubled. The two also have great chemistry together; one of the show’s best scenes occurs when an angry Etta confronts Myron after he’s fired from his job. By the end of the scene, the tables are turned: Etta is comforting and consoling Myron. Great stuff.
This play’s problems, minor though they may be, largely involve the chronology and how it’s telegraphed. The play starts with a broadcast of the 1977 World Series, and then suddenly shifts back eight years, to 1969. However, there weren’t enough verbal and visual cues to clearly illustrate this shift right way, and I was left for several minutes wondering what had happened. (A major typo in the program—it lists the play’s timing as “October 1977 and eight years proceeding,” rather than preceding—contributed to my confusion.)
Also: Perhaps I missed something, but it seemed like Horace first glimpsed Mr. Spencer in the junior-high locker-room shortly after Horace’s 1972 Mark Spitz infatuation. However, it wasn’t until Bryant’s emergence on the national scene in 1977 that Horace began talking about soon entering high school. That would mean Horace spent five years in junior high. Huh?
Whatever. Timing confusion is not the point here: The point is that Anita Bryant Died for Your Sins is fantastic because Garrett Hoy is so fantastic. His Horace seems so darned real. We’ve all seen child actors before who, because they are taught to E-NUN-CI-ATE! by their acting teachers, come out onstage and speak like seasoned politicians. Hoy, however, doesn’t always enunciate his words all that well. In fact, at times, he seems to ramble—yet he’s always understandable. In other words, he talks like a 15-year-old. Perfect.
I was also blown away by Hoy’s command of the script. This role would be difficult for a seasoned, veteran performer, as Anita Bryant Died for Your Sins is essentially a two-hour monologue by Horace, with some breaks here and there. Only once during the entire show did I sense that Hoy was having difficulty (and that moment lasted maybe two seconds, total). Brilliant work.
After the show, which concluded with a standing ovation for Hoy, director Jim Strait told me this is the first nonmusical role for Hoy ever. The folks at Desert Rose, the valley’s LGBT and LGBT-friendly theater company, knew Hoy thanks to his role in the company’s performance of Falsettos in Concert two years ago. They were left so impressed, Strait said, that they checked to make sure Hoy was available to play Horace before the company added the play to the schedule as the 2014-2015 season-opener.
“Not bad for a 15-year-old,” I told Strait, grossly understating things
“Actually, Garrett’s still 14,” Strait said.
Wow. Go see Anita Bryant Died for Your Sins, and enjoy one of the best performances you’re likely to see on a Coachella Valley stage this season.
Desert Rose Playhouse’s Anita Bryant Died for Your Sins is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Oct. 19, at 69260 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.