Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company is to be commended for staging New York playwright Jon Marans’ “A Strange and Separate People,” the story of a gay doctor, new to Orthodox Judaism, struggling to balance the traditions with his sexuality. The subject has proven scandalous to some long-time audience members.
The courage that producing artistic director Barbara Brooks demonstrated in presenting the play has resulted in a powerful and often disconcerting evening of theater.
Marans’ play honors the faith of its three Orthodox characters and celebrates their ancient traditions. He develops the complex relationships between a husband and wife, and the man who comes between them, honoring each individual and relationship.
He makes intriguing connections, like drawing parallels between different kinds of closets: hiding one’s gayness, being embarrassed to wear a yarmulke in public, and trying to keep secret an autistic child. The play gives all these tangled issues a strong emotional grounding.
Kurt Schweickhardt proves a sensitive director, crafting complicated relationships and showing respect for the characters, while making for edge-of-your-seat drama. He is not at all skittish about displaying the affection between the two men.
As the doctor, Nate Cheeseman is handsome, suave and sensuous, attractive to the wife as well as the husband. His attempts to be true to his faith, as well as his passions, are deeply affecting.
Elena Giannetti is heartbreaking as the wife, trying to deal with her autistic son as well as her husband. The script makes her overly cruel and vindictive at her husband’s betrayal, but in Giannetti’s hands, she remains a woman of strong spiritual strength that ultimately proves life-enhancing.
But it is Brandon Bruce, as the husband, who gives the richest performance. From the alpha male at home, to the man striving to keep his life compartmentalized, to being able to be open about his love, he makes the strongest transformation.
For some, what makes this play truly radical is its portrayal of two openly gay men who are also men of great faith. But this is no romance. The play painfully portrays the crippling power of any conservative religion that values conformity to laws over human ambiguity. At the same time, it also becomes a testament to the power of faith and religious compassion.
William Randall Beard writes about theater and music.