This term’s main stage production of Next Fall drew more than sobs and a good deal of laughter: all told, 576 members of the Knox community turned out for one of the performances during its four-night run from Wednesday, Nov. 6 through Saturday, Nov. 9.
A heartwarming and heart-breaking tale of two gay men, Adam (played by sophomore Morgan Jellison) and Luke (junior Neil Phelps) involved in a committed relationship, the play centers around their five years together and how they cope with their religious differences until an accident befalls Luke, bringing his family and their friends together at a hospital.
Instructor in Art Michael Godsil, who has been teaching at Knox for 28 years, attended the show on opening night and urged students and fellow faculty members to attend the following nights.
“I think it’s probably the single most impressive production that I’ve seen in the whole time that I’ve attended theater productions at Knox. The caliber of the material was complex and thoughtful. The student actors were as good as anything I’ve seen on professional stages in Chicago,” he said.
Godsil also appreciated the way that the set was able to transport the audience through simple changes, from waiting room to apartment, to skyscraper, to park bench, and back in a narrow, confined space.
After ten years, Harbach’s stage was no longer stuck in thrust mode, set instead in the slimmer proscenium model, which allowed for more rows of up-close audience seating. The better for the audience to feel the claustrophobic, “omnipresent” waiting room, according to Jellison.
Written by director and actor Geoffrey Nauffts, who has acted on and off Broadway, in film and on television, the Tony Award-winning play had something to offer anyone who’s loved, been impacted by gay rights issues, lost a loved one, questioned faith, or tried to believe in anything.
For Jellison, acting in the play hit close to home.
“After the first read-through, it really struck me [as] incredibly connected to me right now,” said Jellison, whose mothers, godmothers, and one godfather all identify as lesbian or gay.
In October just before a rehearsal, he received the news that one of his godmothers, who had been battling cancer, had passed away.
The connections on and off stage were readily apparent to Jellison as he dealt with death on both fronts.
“It’s really been very cathartic. I’m playing a character who doesn’t believe in God. And [likewise], I’m not religious and trying to figure out, how do you come to peace in not believing that you will ever see that person again and how do you move out of that grief into a place where you can hold on to them and still keep going?” he said.
And Jellison wasn’t the only one for whom the play hit home. Sophomore Anna Clifford, like many audience members around her, was moved to tears by the story.
“It was really respectful, surprisingly so, of the debate between religion [and gay rights]. I think it’s an important one to have and to open up, so it was a really good production for us to have on campus,” she said.
Junior Robert Turski was dually moved, but for him it was the cast that made it.
“It wasn’t the story that made me cry, it was the looks in their faces and the way they touched each other and the way they interacted,” he said.
What it came down to for Godsil was simple: “at bottom, it’s a play about love.”