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‘A play about love’: Terrence McNally’s controversial 1998 work ‘Corpus Christi’ marks the live theater return of Stage Left

Jan. 20, 2022 Updated Thu., March 24, 2022 at 4:46 p.m.

By Audrey Overstreet For The Spokesman-Review

After nearly two years of pandemic-driven delays, Stage Left Theater marks its official return to live theater this weekend with the season-opener “Corpus Christi.” The controversial 1998 play by the late Terrence McNally draws upon the biblical narrative of the life of Jesus, but with a queer twist.

The Christ figure, a character named Joshua, is portrayed as a gay teenager whose coming out in modern-day Texas leads to his tormented isolation, then to his gathering of like-minded disciples and eventually to his own death.

Director Troy Nickerson is adamant that the play, opening Friday night and continuing through Feb. 6, is “not about gay Jesus.”

“It’s so much greater than that,” he said. Above all, Nickerson said, “ ‘Corpus Christi’ is a play about love.” And it’s the play we all need right now, he continued.

More than 23 years ago, “Corpus Christi’s” Off-Broadway premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club made headlines around the world as the Catholic League and religious right protesters picketed the theater for weeks. McNally, whose works also include “Love! Valor! Compassion!,” “Ragtime” and “Frankie and Johnny,” received bomb and death threats. The play was temporarily canceled.

While most who condemned “Corpus Christi” as blasphemous had never seen it, the majority of theater critics hailed the play as a powerful warning against hate, violence and division. Time magazine wrote at the time: “If the point is to make Jesus’ teachings live for a contemporary audience, activist Christians should be hailing this play, not trying to suppress it.”

Despite the sexuality and profanity in McNally’s updated retelling, Nickerson believes “Corpus Christi” is highly respectful of Jesus and his teachings.

“I have to admit that when I was reading it, there were moments that the little Catholic boy in me was gulping here and there,” Nickerson said. “It’s hard to imagine a story with Jesus in which people say (the F-word), but that’s the kind of thing that makes the play so current and powerful.”

“It’s about acceptance and loving your brother, or sister, or whomever, for who they are,” Nickerson said. “I’ve actually been so moved watching these young, talented performers that I’ve gone home and just sat and cried after rehearsals.”

The cast includes Rhead Shirley as Joshua, Robert Cordero Thompson as Judas, Bridget Pretz as Peter, Michael Schmidt as John, Jaron Fuglie as Phillip, Ollie Davies as Andrew, Colton Sullivan as Matthew, Matt Pope as Thomas, Morgan Cramer as Simon, Gatieh Nacario as James, Rowena Nelson as James the Less, Felix Lewis as Bartholomew and Tre Keough as Thadeus.

The diverse group of Stage Left cast members embodies the play’s message of inclusion, according to Nickerson.

“It started on Day 1 with just the theater itself, when people auditioning were taking pictures of the signs on the restrooms welcoming everyone,” Nickerson said. Jeremy Whittington, Stage Left’s artistic director, also made nametags for cast members with their correct pronouns.

“I’ve felt the joy (cast members) have at being so welcomed and safe in Stage Left’s space and being part of this play, and I’ve seen the hurt on their faces when I misgender some of them during rehearsal by accident,” Nickerson said.

“This has been very much life-changing for me. It’s just given me so much more to think about and to be present with these people, knowing the struggles that I had as a young gay boy in the ’80s coming out. … I can do better. We all can do better.”

To combat hate crimes, rising murder rates and suicides among LGBTQ+ communities, Nickerson believes “Corpus Christi’s” message of love is needed now more than ever.

“There is so much hate in the world right now, and when we hate, this is what happens – somebody dies,” Nickerson said. “The question is how would we treat Jesus if he came along today?”

Nickerson said his hope for Spokane audiences is that they take away the message Jesus taught, which is central to the play. “Just to love each other unconditionally,” he said. “I also don’t want to just preach to the choir. Have the courage to get out of your comfort zone and come and see this.”

Tom Kirdahy, the husband of McNally, who died at age 81 of complications from COVID-19 in March 2020, met with the entire Spokane cast online during a recent rehearsal.

Stage Left reported on Facebook that Kirdahy said the following: “You are going to change people’s lives. It’s often on a sort of time release, so it could be next week, or next year, or two years from now, but you will encounter people who will say to you, ‘I saw that production, and it changed me.’ “

“Wherever ‘Corpus Christi’ was being performed in the world, Terrence made it a point to reach out to make contact with the company,” Kirdahy told the cast. “He was aware that it was an act of bravery. Hearing some of your stories is a reminder of that.”

Kirdahy left the Stage Left cast with two words: “Love wins.”

Arts and entertainment correspondent Audrey Overstreet is vice president of the board of directors for Stage Left Theater.

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