What if you were forced to choose between your religion and your relationships? Your faith and your sexuality?
That dilemma, faced by many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is the subject of Ben Abbott's one-man play “Questions of the Heart: Gay Mormons and the Search for Identity.”
“You have a deep-seated faith that you can’t toss out when you’re faced with (this quandary),” explained Abbott, a practicing Mormon. “You have to decide, ‘How do I stay true to myself? To all the different sides of myself?’ ”
Abbott, who graduated from San Luis Obispo High School in 2002, should be familiar to many fans of the Central Coast theater scene. He performed with the Great American Melodrama in Oceano and the Central Coast Shakespeare Festival, later studying theater at PCPA Theaterfest in Santa Maria and UC Berkeley.
Abbott now lives in Indiana with his wife, costume designer Barbara Harvey Abbott.
According to Abbott, the impetus behind “Questions of the Heart” came from the 2008 election season. Specifically, he was inspired by the controversial campaign to pass Proposition 8, which changed the California Constitution to ban same-sex marriage in the state.
“People were pretty justifiably upset about what was going on, and a lot of that anger got vented toward the church,” he recalled, since the main group behind the ban, Protect Marriage, received strong support from the Mormon church.
Abbott found himself torn between two worlds, with his faith and family on one side and his gay friends and coworkers on the other.
“I refused to distance myself from either one,” he said. “Just being in that situation was uncomfortable for me.”
But the experience made Abbott wonder: If he faced such discomfort as a straight member of the church, what must the same situation be like to be a gay Mormon?
In 2011, when searching for subjects for his undergraduate honors thesis project at UC Berkeley, the playwright recalled his earlier query. He decided to conduct a series of interviews with gay Mormons and write a play based on their responses.
“Finding interview subjects turned out to be much easier than I thought it would be,” he said. “They really liked that I didn’t have an ax to grind either way. I was genuinely curious and genuinely wanted to learn more.”
In the course of his research, Abbott talked to four women and eight men ranging in age from their mid-20s to their 60s. His subjects included straight author, poet and playwright Carol Lynn Pearson, who detailed her marriage to a homosexual man in her memoir “Goodbye, I Love You.”
What he discovered was a wide array of attitudes, ranging from people so embittered by their experiences with Mormonism that they completely renounced the church to others who “loved the church with an intensity that impressed me as someone who is a churchgoing guy.”
From 200 edited pages of material, Abbott created a series of in-character monologues in the style of actress, author and playwright Anna Deavere Smith.
A new version of “Questions of the Heart,” created for the fringe festival circuit, adds Abbott as a character. He described his fictional self as a “basic Mormon guy,” albeit “a little more naïve, a little more ignorant” than the playwright is in real life.
True to its title, Abbott’s play, directed by Mark Kamie, raises plenty of questions about faith and sexuality but doesn’t offer many conclusive answers.
“People watch (‘Questions of the Heart’) half-expecting my character to make a commitment either way,” the playwright said. “I say at the beginning, ‘Am I supposed to choose sides?’ I can’t do that.”
What Abbott hopes to accomplish is empathy among his audience members — regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum.
“I would love to … tear down the wall of this idea about ‘us’ and ‘them,’ ‘our guys’ and ‘their guys,’ ” he said. “Through empathy, you get to the place of saying ‘It’s (all) us.’ ”
If you go
‘Questions of the Heart: Gay Mormons and the Search for Identity’
7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday
Steynberg Gallery, 1531 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo
$12, $10 students