Finding Jesus, finding herself

Corey Maier's solo show "Endless Oceans" traces a voyage through faith, sexuality, and the mysteries of discovering one's own truth

A few years ago, when my alma mater Saint Mary’s Academy became the center of a hiring scandal, I learned that there had been a secret Gay-Straight Alliance while I was a student there. This came as a total shock. I distinctly remember seeing references to “Geography Club” (the name this group went by) and wondering, “What the hell does that mean?” before continuing along my way. Well, what it meant was, “this is a GSA we can’t actually call that.” And I’d had no idea.

I don’t know if Saint Mary’s is allowed to have open queer identity groups now. But of course, in many Christian contexts, with so much cultural pressure to the contrary, even an open queer support group might not be enough for some students. One suspects that it wouldn’t have done much for Corey Maier, the writer and subject of the autobiographical solo show Endless Oceans, performing through Aug. 20 at the Back Door Theater (normally the home of Defunkt).

Maier amid the mysteries of life. Photo: Angela Genton

Very early in the show, Maier describes the day she found Christ at the hands of a tattooed youth minister who she portrays with a black beanie cap and a wholesome swagger, who calls her to surrender herself to Jesus. I surrendered myself to Corey just a few minutes before, when she described her less-than-enthusiastic churchgoing as a Catholic youth. There was only one thing she liked about mass, she explains: “The body of Christ was stale … but the blood of Christ was fermented.” She glances at the audience, wide-eyed with the giddy innocence of teenage transgression. “You can take a big gulp.”

With that one line, like Saul on the road to Damascus, I was liberated from my fears of autobiographical solo shows, my skepticism about “that’s how I learned that Christianity is a repressive nightmare” narratives, my weariness with coming-out stories, and instead (to paraphrase Maier’s later earnest attempts at proselytizing) let Corey take the wheel and guide my evening.

Endless Oceans is proof of the adage, often used to reassure young writers, that any story is original because you have never told it. Your unique humanity makes the story unique. Well, in Maier’s case, that’s true. You may think the story of a Christian girl’s sexual awakening is one you’ve heard before, but you haven’t heard Maier tell it.

Maier has a mix of self-awareness and earnestness that is deeply compelling, and allows her to push past the audience’s initial over-eagerness to laugh at any description or expression of Christian faith (though some, of course, are meant to be laughed at) and guide us gradually and inexorably into empathy, building to a beautiful climactic confession that rejects the expected revelations about faith and sexuality and instead weaves the apparently conflicting principles of Christian and romantic love into something deeply personal, subtle, and very moving.

This speech is so good, it would be hard for any writer to figure out how to follow it, and though Maier doesn’t stick the landing, it doesn’t really matter – the rest has been strong enough. Other quibbles include the distractingly overactive lighting design (Kelly Terry) and the similarly overcluttered set (Molly Shevaun Reed, also the director, sound designer, and prop designer). Maier doesn’t need these trappings; she’s so compelling all on her own.

Swimming through an endless sea. Photo: Angela Genton

Her distinctive voice and presence mean that this multi-character solo show is not the transforming act that some actors would make of it, but she and Reed find ways to make it sufficiently clear when she is switching characters. And it means Maier does not have to sacrifice her bright core of honesty for flashy voices and physicalities, which is for the best, even when it sometimes takes a moment to be sure of who is talking. But there’s even something thematically appropriate in that: as Maier cycles through friends and pastors and spiritual leaders, the person she’s really looking for is herself.

We learn to define ourselves in the terms that are available to us. Sexual feelings for your best friend are Satan trying to sabotage your friendship out of envy. A vision of an angel plunging a golden spear repeatedly into your heart so that you cry out in pain and ecstasy is a saint’s mystical communion with God. Erotic poems about Jesus are an expression of faith. Geography Club is a bizarre mystery. Pushing at those boundaries, learning new definitions, is frightening and personal. Maier strikes that almost-impossible solo show balance between personal and voyeuristic; revelatory and masturbatory; expansive and didactic.

She doesn’t quite shatter the boundaries. She doesn’t take the easy dramatic route of burning it all down, of condemning Christian cruelty or hypocrisy and rising from the ashes of all she was to rage against in her past. All that may be worth doing in a debate or a polemic. Her gentleness and uncertainty make for far better art.

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Endless Oceans opened Friday, Aug. 11, and continues through Sunday, Aug. 20, at the Back Door Theatre, 4319 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd. Ticket and schedule information here.

 

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