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Wrestling with sins of the flesh, a porn star finds salvation comes at a cost in ‘Hesperia’

Submitted by on Feb 18, 2012 – 4:09 pm

Review: “Hesperia” by Randall Colburn, at Writers’ Theatre through March 18 ****

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Claudia, to begin with, isn’t even her real name. But the young woman who now calls herself by that name has fled from all the awful reality of her life as a Hollywood porn star – to seek safety, rebirth and redemption in a small community of born-again Christians. It isn’t that easy, though, making the leap from your own past, especially when the best (and worst) part of it catches up with you.

That’s the set-up of Randall Colburn’s “Hesperia,” a cauldron of spiritual and sexual conflict stirred with provocative effect at Writers’ Theatre.

To say the gist of “Hesperia” is a struggle between the sins of the flesh and the quest for God would be to understate the complexity of a play that honors religious conviction while never losing sight of another kind of fundamentalism: basic human nature, foremost the sexual urge. But physical love, or sexual passion, is circumscribed by cultural norms and belief systems; and sex has forever been muddled and exploited into perversity, profit and crime.

Playwright Colburn, not yet 30, observes the conjunction of sex and religious faith in light of his own experience. “Hesperia,” which has been workshopped in the Chicago area over the last three years, is neither a Christian play nor a criticism of born-again Christians. As it offers an arrestingly humanistic perspective on religion as a balm to troubled souls, “Hesperia” also underscores the cost and risk involved when one contemplates religious commitment.

Claudia, played by Kelly O’Sullivan with a quiet assurance that steadily betrays distress and doubt, has broken with the porn grind, resettled in the small Midwestern town of Hesperia, accepted Christ as her savior and become engaged to Trick, a youth minister. But her new serenity is upset when in walks Ian, her sweetheart from girlhood who also happens to be her longtime co-star in the porn game. Ian is on the lam, possibly from drug dealers, and a heavily wrapped hand suggests how desperate his plight may be.

Suddenly Claudia is caught up in a serendipitous triangle as Ian (a strapping, lusty Nathan Hosner) tries to rekindle the old flame and Trick (played with carefully buffed purity by Erik Hellman) begin to take each other’s measure. Yet Claudia isn’t Ian’s only local option. There’s the girlish Daisy, portrayed by Rebecca Buller with complete innocence and an ineffable allure. Ian insists he doesn’t want to cause problems or hurt anyone. Those things he manages to do without trying.

The play’s fifth character is something of a fifth wheel, an adolescent boy called Aaron with every boy’s curiosity about sex and a questioning streak that sends events hurtling off the rails. Aaron (Tyler Ross) is Trick’s religious protégé and indeed a younger version of himself. It would not take much of an interpretive nudge to suggest a gay relationship between Trick and Aaron. The play’s ambiguous ending leaves open the distinct possibility that Trick is homosexual.

That the youth minister’s sexual orientation might be read either way only reinforces one of the playwright’s underlying themes: the psychological torment of sexual repression generally.

The stark rural set created by Chelsea M. Warren affords these agonizing souls no place to hide from their fears, and what’s disturbing everyone most is sex, whether denied or imagined or acted out. It might be noted that two episodes of simulated sex occur on stage, one comparatively tame but the other quite intense, prolonged and vociferous. No clothes are shed, but the stylized act plays out in full splendor amid the grasses.

Director Stuart Carden builds the show along deliberate lines to a denouement that leaves the viewer with only one possible response: lots of burning questions. The playwright leaves Claudia and Trick with some hard issues to resolve – and us to ponder them as well.

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Photo caption and credits: Home page and top: Kelly O’Sullivan portrays Claudia with Nathan Hosner as Ian in “Hesperia.”  Upper right: Erik Hellman as Trick with Kelly O’Sullivan as Claudia. Upper right: Daisy (Rebecca Buller) entertains Ian (Nathan Hosner). (Photos by Michael Brosilow)

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