Curio Theatre Company continues to push boundaries as they open their tenth season in West Philadelphia. THE MATTER OF FRANK SCHAEFER is a company-created piece dramatizing the defrockment of a United Methodist Church pastor for performing his gay son’s marriage ceremony in 2007. Directed by Company Manager Gay Carducci Kuhn, the play runs from November 12–December 6, 2014 at the theatre’s home—ironically, in the Calvary United Methodist Church.
Written in a style reminiscent of THE LARAMIE PROJECT and Anna Deavere Smith’s TWILIGHT: LOS ANGELES, 1992 (a docu-drama about the aftermath of the Rodney King beating), Curio’s piece relies on court transcripts and interviews with people involved in the situation to examine not only the church’s views on acceptance of all people, but society’s as well. The entire company worked tirelessly for the past year to create the piece, under the leadership of Artistic Director Paul Kuhn. As recently as the end of last month, Kuhn was in Nashville where Schaefer was on trial for refusing to promise to abide by every letter of UMC law. In addition to banning same-sex marriages, the Church’s “rule book” states that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” But, “all people may attend…” As Kuhn put it: “How Godly, right?” Kuhn said the entire company was fascinated by and drawn to Schaefer’s story—particularly since they had been producing theatre in a portion of an active Methodist Church for a decade (including a “same-sex” version of ROMEO AND JULIET last season).
Schaefer’s troubles started in August of 2007. The then-pastor of Zion United Methodist Church of Iona in Lebanon, PA was asked by his eldest son to perform a marriage ceremony for the son and his partner. Schaefer informed his immediate supervisor and travelled to Cohasset, Massachusetts to perform the ceremony in a private room at a local restaurant. Only family and friends were present. During the intervening years, Schaefer became a quiet advocate for gay rights, ministering to ALL people in his community. Six years later, after numerous disagreements amongst congregants, one of them lodged a complaint against Schaefer. Given a choice to maintain his credentials if he upheld the Church’s version of “Don’t ask-Don’t tell”, Schaefer said he could not. He felt it was not truly Christian to exclude someone from full participation in his or her faith because of sexual orientation. Schaefer was defrocked and Lebanon, Pennsylvania found itself in the center of a media firestorm—much like Laramie, Wyoming did in 1998.
All of this played out as the nation slowly started changing laws regarding same-sex marriages state by state. I have two gay brothers—both of whom are in monogamous, loving relationships (one 40 years in length). We used to think women were possessions, but came to realize how erroneous that was; we thought slavery was okay, but fortunately saw the light on that horror as well. Why are we still having such a hard time seeing that the LGBTQ community deserves the same rights as the rest of us? I guess it will take more brave souls like Schaefer and other gay rights activists to continue bravely getting the message out.
THE MATTER OF FRANK SCHAEFER underwent a number of revisions as things kept changing—a conclusive ending could not be written until about three weeks ago. The six-actor ensemble does solid work conveying Rev. Schaefer’s spirit—and that of his family. Kuhn portrays Rev. Schaefer, and beautifully conveys the strength and faith of this man. As eldest son Tim, company member Steve Carpenter touched many hearts showing this young man’s struggle to reconcile his sexuality with his deep-abiding love of his church. Aetna Gallagher, Tina Giavannone, Colleen Hughes and Ken Opdenaker round out the ensemble, playing assorted congregants, UMC hierarchy and residents of Lebanon. Each does a great job of delineating each character, as well as presenting both sides evenly.
There were some line struggles on opening night, but I’m chalking that up to having a number of the people involved in the story in the audience. I know I would find it daunting to have the subject of my play watching me. Knowing the commitment Curio has to truth in their work, I’m sure they want to do Schaefer and his supporters justice.
On the technical side, Kuhn has created an elegantly simple set that allows fluidity as we move from locale to locale. Tim Martin lights it in a rainbow of colors, a not-so-subtle nod to the rainbow stole Schaefer and his supporters wear to show solidarity with the LGBTQ community. Gallagher has given each actor a basic costume of black pants and shirt, onto which they add appropriate pieces to signify the characters they are portraying. In addition, Daniel Ison has provided a lovely, gentle soundscape.
The title for this piece is a line from a song by Cass Elliott; it was inspired by a quote from the pastor of Calvary United Methodist Church, who has supported Curio’s work for a decade now. When Kuhn spoke to him regarding Schaefer and his situation, the Rev. John Pritchard talked to him about the divisions within the Church regarding gays. He stated that far more Methodists are in favor of inclusiveness in the church than are against it, dubbing the issue the “fault line”. THE MATTER OF FRANK SCHAEFER is a thought-provoking theatre piece that, sadly, is still needed. We’ve made some progress as a nation since Matthew Shepard’s murder in 1998, but stories like that of the Schaefer family still need to be told.
THE MATTER OF FRANK SCHAEFER
by Curio Theatre Company
Directed by Gay Carducci-Kuhn
November 12—December 6, 2014
Curio Theatre Company
4740 Baltimore Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19143