What's it like to pretend to be perfect? What's it like to be a Mormon but question your faith? What's it like to be gay and LDS? What's it like to live in the "Borderlands"?
A new play exploring those questions premiered this week in Salt Lake City and continues its run through April 10 at the Wagner Center.
"Borderlands," written by Eric Samuelsen, who teaches playwriting at Brigham Young University, takes a funny but dramatic look at the process of coming out in Mormon culture -- but not in the usual sense.
Samuelsen, who is an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, isn't afraid to tackle some thorny issues.
"I can't limit myself to a kind of writing defined by what seems to me a complacent and unchallenging Mormon aesthetic," Samuelsen writes in the Plan-B Theatre Company blog about his play.
"My play intends to honor those who live in the margins, those for whom Mormonism exists as a liminal state. I wanted to honor my borderland friends, to tell their story with compassion and accuracy. I don't want to judge; I want to describe."
The play, which takes its name from a column in Sunstone Magazine, is produced by Plan-B and is directed by Jerry Rapier, the company's producing director.
"There is a pressure within the Mormon faith to be perfect and to present yourself and your ideas and your life as in alignment with everyone else who is a member of your faith," said Rapier, who was raised LDS but no longer subscribes to the faith. "And it's really difficult to live up to that kind of pressure."
But what happens when four Mormon characters decide to be honest with one another about their lives? Samuelsen sets out to answer that question by setting his story in -- of all places -- a used-car lot in Provo.
The owner of the car lot is Phyllis, played by Farmington actress Teri Cowan. She describes her character as an angry, embittered woman who has had a rough life and is questioning her faith.
"There are more people that fall into that category than maybe admit it," Cowan said. "I think it's OK to have questions."
Phyllis is assisted on the lot by her brother Dave, a divorced salesman who has been excommunicated from the church because of a felony conviction. Dave is played by Kirt Bateman, executive director of the Davis Arts Council. Bateman said his character has hit rock bottom, is actually living on the car lot and is trying to find his way back to some kind of normalcy.
"He meets Gail, who comes to buy a car, and he falls for her," Bateman said. "He sees an opportunity to do something different, and that's be totally and completely honest. That's not something he's used to in his professional life, or his personal life."
But Gail, played by Stephanie Howell of Park City, has her own set of problems. Her idyllic Mormon life is coming apart at the seams due to a cheating husband. She decides she could do with some honesty as well.
Finally, there is Brian, played by Topher Rasmussen of Sandy, who is Gail's gay nephew and works as a mechanic on the car lot. Rapier said Brian has been sent by his parents to live with his aunt in Utah to "straighten him out, literally."
"They end up sitting in these used cars together," Rapier said. "And they refer to time in there as sitting in the 'honesty car,' and they tell the truth about what liars they are. It's a place where they feel like they can be completely honest and they find that they can be completely honest with each other."
Gay and spiritual?
Who has access to God? Rapier hopes one outcome of the production will be people re-examining their attitudes about gay individuals. Brian doesn't fit the typical gay stereotype -- he loves cars and is quite faith-focused.
"It becomes clear in the course of the play that Brian is the most spiritually attuned of the four characters, and he is the one that does not have a place within the church," Rapier said.
Rapier realizes that some people may object to depiction of a a young gay man as also a spiritual being.
"There's an assumption from a lot of religions and a lot of rhetoric out there that those two things can't co-exist, which is asinine," Rapier said. "Your sexuality doesn't have anything more to do with how spiritual you can or can't be than the color of your hair."
Interestingly, Rapier noted, the young actor who portrays Brian has been so affected by his involvement in this production that he has decided to go on an LDS mission. The other three actors are also LDS, but no longer practicing members.
If "Borderlands" had been set in Minnesota instead of Utah, Rapier said, it would have been about Lutherans or Catholics instead of Mormons, but the message would have remained the same.
"It's spiritually accessible no matter what your faith background is," Rapier said. "Whether people are religious or not, we all experience a crisis of faith. They question the purpose of their lives and their relationships and how they fit or don't fit into their community."
Bateman and Cowan both say the message is universal and should appeal to a wide audience.
"It is what we hide from each other and what we assume about each other, and that's what's really relatable to everyone," Bateman said.
Bateman remembers having questions about the faith as he was growing up, but not being encouraged to pursue those questions.
"You just sort of put them aside and you don't really think about them," Bateman said. "You just go on faith."
What "Borderland" examines as it characters "come out and reveal who they are" is whether it is OK to ask those questions and what to do when an individual's beliefs don't exactly line up with the church's.
"Is it OK if you can't embrace all of it? Is it OK to embrace the part of it that gives you comfort?" Cowan asks. "Do you have to be a 100 percent believer, or is it OK to be a 75 percent believer?"
Added Bateman: "There's definitely a place in Utah culture for devout Mormons and there's a place in Utah culture for non-Mormons. But I don't know that there's a place for this sort of in-between."
Rapier and his cast believe the playwright, who has called this script his most personal project, has opened a dialogue that will get people thinking about those living in the Borderlands.
"What do you do with the questions that you have within a church that doesn't want you to ask questions?" Rapier said. "Where does the peace come from for people who do have questions and want potential answers for them?"