“Sweet, Sweet Spirit”: Academy of Music play looks at family crisis in small-town America

  • At far left, Jaris Hanson, left, as Nanna Jo, and Melenie Freedom Flynn, as Suzanne. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Stephanie Carlson, as Jennifer, and Jay Sefton, as her brother, Jimmy, discuss the aftermath of Jimmy’s beating of his son, Tyler, in a rehearsal for “Sweet, Sweet Spirit” at the Academy of Music. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Shelia Siragusa, the director of “Sweet, Sweet Spirit,” says the play looks at the way hatred, fear and misunderstanding sometimes morphs into violence. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Stephanie Carlson, as Jennifer, rehearses for “Sweet, Sweet Spirit” at the Academy of Music. Her character has rejected much of her religious and cultural upbringing in a small Texas town. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/22/2017 4:40:22 PM

A man in a small West Texas town, raised by a god-fearing Christian mother, finds his teenage son in bed with an older man and beats the boy into a coma.

That’s the starting point of the play “Sweet, Sweet Spirit,” opening Friday night at Northampton’s Academy of Music. But if you think this is just a story about violent rednecks and the prejudices of rural America, think again.

“Sweet, Sweet Spirit,” by New Mexico playwright Carol Carpenter, has been produced by the academy, the facility’s third such effort since “Nobody’s Girl,” a play about a female manager of the theater in the 1940s, was staged there in 2014.

The new work, Academy Director Debra J’Anthony says, is on one level a look at homophobia in a small community. But more broadly, she notes, it’s an examination of the struggle people with different beliefs have in understanding one another, particularly when it involves family members.

Director Sheila Siragusa notes that the play, in which the boy’s father, mother, aunt and grandmother must confront their family skeletons in the aftermath of the father’s fury, has taken on new relevance with President Donald Trump’s election — an election that’s been followed by numerous incidents of harassment and some outright violence directed at immigrants, the gay community, Muslims and others.

“My first thought on reading this was, why stage it in a really diverse community like the Valley?” said Siragusa, a professor of theater at the University of Massachusetts Amherst; she also directed “Nobody’s Girl” at the academy.

But with Trump’s election, she said, the play took on added significance.

“It’s really an examination of how hatred and fear and misunderstanding can turn into violence,” Siragusa noted. She also calls the play “an inspired learning tool,” given how it illustrates the difficulty people can have in listening to — and understanding — someone with different beliefs.

Carpenter, the playwright, grew up in a fervent Southern Baptist family in small-town New Mexico and “came out of the closet at 18,” as she puts it. In a recent phone call from her home southwest of Santa Fe, she said she wrote “Sweet, Sweet Spirit” in part as a means of addressing the issue of differing sexuality in rural America.

“That’s something you don’t hear much about,” she said, noting that issues of importance to the LGBTQ community tend to have much more visibility in urban areas.

Carpenter said she’s never faced violence or estrangement from her relatives because of her sexuality. Yet “after spending 20 years watching my extended family” struggle with that issue, she added, her response was to begin writing the play.

“Sweet, Sweet Spirit” has been performed in New York City and New Mexico and has had staged readings elsewhere. And with Trump’s election, Carpenter noted, it would seem to have additional relevancy, and ideally will get more visibility: “I hope that’s the case.”

A family crisis

There’s no actual violence in “Sweet, Sweet Spirit.” But it begins on an ominous note: Jimmy (Jay Sefton) strides into the home of his mother, Nanna Jo (Jaris Hanson) to tell her his son, 15-year-old Tyler, is in the hospital. Jimmy confesses he’s badly beaten Tyler after finding him at home in bed with a man “twice his age.”

During a recent rehearsal of the scene at the Academy of Music, Sefton, his hair disheveled, said in an agonized voice to Hanson, “The man was naked!”

“I don’t want to hear that!” exclaimed Hanson.

“You think I want to?!” Sefton shouted.

That exchange neatly sums up one of the central themes of “Sweet, Sweet Spirit.” Tyler’s homosexuality is the elephant in the room, the issue that none of the family members, particularly Nanna Jo, seem able to address directly. They dance around it, using euphemisms like “different.”

To Jimmy, Tyler is an embarrassment, an affront to his masculinity and fatherhood: “Everywhere I go I’m snickered at … He has made a fool of me all over town!”

The teen is also simply a handful — Jimmy, a lawyer, calls him “lazy, vain and manipulative” — whether lying about using his parents’ credit cards or taking off in his father’s Porsche.

To Nanna Jo, a devout Pentecostal who’s judgmental, stubborn, and convinced God’s way is the only way, Tyler is her beloved (and only) grandchild. Yet she struggles to reconcile her love for him with her belief that homosexuality is an irredeemable sin.

By a hospital bed

Much of the play is set in a hospital room, where the unconscious Tyler (Tommy Harte) is watched over by the various family members. The central question of the drama is who will take care of the boy when — or if — he comes out of his coma.

With Jimmy likely headed to jail, Nanna Jo and her daughter, Jennifer (Stephanie Carlson) debate who would be a more appropriate caregiver. The independent and secular Jennifer, Jimmy’s sister, has escaped their small town to build a career in the oil industry; she wants to take her nephew with her when she moves to Houston for a recent promotion.

Then there’s Suzanne (Melenie Freedom Flynn), Tyler’s mother, who notes that others see her as “white trash”: big-haired, gum-chewing, maybe with a drinking problem, someone unfit to care for Tyler on her own. But she’s also not afraid to stand up to her mother-in-law or tell her she’s not the best choice for the boy: “You judge everything! [And] not everything is black and white.”

The family’s history gets an airing that introduces wrinkles to all the characters and confounds stereotypes. As Carpenter notes, Jimmy was forced to marry Suzanne when he was 21 and she just 15 after he got her pregnant at a college party. His ambition for a law career in a bigger city was stifled, and he and Suzanne have little in common.

“He’s a victim of his own environment,” Carpenter said. “He’s full of anger and sorrow and recrimination, and a lot of that comes bubbling up” when he finds Tyler in bed with a man.

“Sweet, Sweet Spirit” includes one additional main character, Kendall (Lindel Hart), Tyler’s music teacher at school. Kendall is also gay, has also been the target of violence, and also grew up in the same small town — and his appearance in the latter part of the play adds to the family’s dilemma about what to do.

Siragusa says the play, which has a basic set, runs 90 minutes; as of mid March, she had not determined whether there would be an intermission. But either way, she noted, the drama offers a welcome discussion about greater acceptance and understanding at a time when both are sorely needed.

“It’s a conversation we need to have,” she said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Sweet, Sweet Spirit” plays Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Academy of Music. For ticket prices and additional information, visit www.aomtheatre.com.

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