Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Borderlands: The Sacred and the Profane

I went with my son and a couple of friends this past weekend to see the play Borderlands, a production of the Plan B Theatre Company  playing at the Rose Wagner Studio Theatre in Salt Lake City.  I had read the Salt Lake Tribune review about the play, which was written by BYU Professor Eric Samuelsen, and was looking forward to the performance.

I wasn’t prepared, however, for what I experienced.*

Of course, I knew that all the characters in the play are Mormon and that one of these was gay – a teenage boy named Brian.  What I didn’t know, however, was that Brian, who is openly gay, falls in love with another boy (who is not out at all) and, in one of the play’s many poignant moments, describes how – though he has a testimony of the Church – there is no room in the Church for him because he is gay. 

With my son sitting beside me, I heard Brian describe his feelings for the boy he had fallen in love with.  I heard him give voice to thoughts and feelings that I have read and heard spoken elsewhere:  how it is not fair or realistic for a gay man in the LDS church to remain “chaste”, when being “chaste” means no displays of physical affection:  no hugging, no hand-holding, no kissing, no nothing.   I heard Brian quote Joseph Smith and express his “testimony”, yet resign himself to the fact there was no place for him in the Mormon Church.

I wondered what my son was thinking.  (He had asked as we were driving to the theatre whether the play was “anti”.  I said it wasn’t, so far as I knew, and this proved to be true:  though aspects of Mormon culture and belief were very definitely held up for examination, the Church itself was not criticized or belittled in any way.)

I also wondered what he was thinking when I heard the other characters each honestly express their own doubts, feelings and questions:  from the middle-aged man (Dave) who had “face-planted” mid-life and had been excommunicated; from the middle-aged woman (Gail) going through a divorce who struggled for meaning amidst her cynicism; from the older woman (Phyllis) who had experienced devastating loss early in her life (the accidental deaths of her husband and two children) and, though extremely active in the Church and holder of a current temple recommend, harbored a deep and abiding hatred of God.

What was my son thinking as he listened to these characters “come out” to each other in a world that did not correspond at all to that which is typically portrayed in your average Sunday School class?

The play proceeds to a climax as Phyllis, who is dying of cancer, maliciously outs Brian’s boyfriend, telling his parents and bishop.  Brian is furious – and heartbroken, as all contact with the boy he has fallen in love with is severed. 

A number of things happen at once.  Gail is close to the end, is hysterical and loses her reason; she no longer recognizes those around her.  Dave and Gail desperately try to calm her, without success.  Finally, Brian, the gay “predator” that Phyllis had come to hate – perhaps because he stood for a freedom and openness that she had always denied herself, and/or perhaps because he stood on the brink of a life, whereas she stood on the brink of death, and/or perhaps (most likely) because she resented his “flaunting” of rules that she had slavishly adhered to so that she “could be with her family again” (her most fervent desire) – reaches through the chaos of the moment and, after assuring Phyllis that God loves her, asks her if she would like a blessing.

The effect was electric.  The introduction of that extremely meaning-laden term into a play that had addressed themes of disbelief, disaffection and disunity was jarring.  There was some discussion among the characters:  Brian held only the Aaronic Priesthood; Dave no longer held any priesthood; and of course Gail was a woman.  None of them held the Melchizedek priesthood that was required to give a formal priesthood blessing.  Yet, they were united in their desire to help Phyllis.

At this point, I felt a tension that I’m sure was felt by many others in that theatre.  Was something that is viewed as sacred be profaned?  Were they actually going to act out a priesthood blessing on stage?  I am sure the playwright knew precisely the effect this would have on his audience, an effect which made what followed so profoundly moving. 

As Brian, Gail and Dave laid their hands on Phyllis’ head and Brian started to pronounce a blessing, only to be interrupted by Dave, who tried to tell him the “correct” way to go about it, I felt something that I’m sure many others in that theatre felt.  It started with a realization that Brian – the gay outcast – was the only one there remotely “qualified” to act as “voice”.  The irony deepened when one considered that it was he, who had been so deeply wrongly by this woman, who had proposed giving her a blessing.

But it was once Brian began the “blessing” – which was simply a prayer, uttered by Brian while he, Gail and Dave placed their hands on Phyllis’ head – that the pent-up tension I and others had felt was transformed into an experience that I will long remember.  There, on the stage, we saw ourselves – these frustrated, hurt, yet caring people who were trying to make sense of their lives and their religion – reach out and beyond the confines of formal religious strictures in an act of love and of raw, simple faith. 

We recognized, perhaps, that in our concern about the sacred being profaned, we had been more concerned about the formalities of our religion (i.e., the “blessing”) than about reaching out in love, whereupon we relaxed and let ourselves be swallowed up by what happening on stage.  In the moments that followed, the characters on the stage – and us in the audience – experienced redemption.  The profane had been made sacred.  In the sense of the Latin roots of these words, that which was outside the temple had been made holy.

The feeling in the room was palpable, and was frankly more powerful than anything I had ever felt in a temple.  I held back a wave of emotion with great difficulty, and I know I wasn’t the only one who struggled:  one could hear snifflings all over the theatre; all were affected; all felt, I think, what I was feeling.

And then, one short scene later, the play was over.  Some issues were resolved; others not.  Like life.  But the characters on the stage knew that they had been changed by their experience, as we in the audience had been by ours. 

* Note:  The play has now closed.  The complete text of the play is contained in the current edition of Sunstone Magazine.


  1. Wow! What a fascinating play that allowed you to observe the creative acting out of some many of your questions! Plays have this magical power because of your distant proximity and its brevity (its the memories your remember of how you felt and thought when you saw it because it's gone after it's been seen).

    I'm curious, what did your son think? You used the pronoun "we". Did you both come to this realization?

  2. Great review. Thanks for relaying the ride that you got to go on. I am so hoping that this play will reappear in Utah at another time.

  3. @Libellule - A very apt description of the power of plays. The "we" I was referring to was the audience as a whole. I presume to speak for them. :)

    @Martin - I hope it will reappear as well. All of the performances were sold out, even after they extended the run for a week.

  4. Vic,

    Thanks for sharing your experience and for capturing and communicating the play's emotional and meaningful essence.

    (I too am curious to know if you discovered what the boys felt/thought?


  5. @Trey and Libellule - My son's comment when I asked him what he thought was that he had felt uncomfortable at times, but that the play was thought-provoking. I could definitely understand his discomfort, but I was pleased that he had moved through that to consider the messages of the play.