Geoffrey Nauffts’ Next Fall offers us nothing new in terms of plot. The play begins with a car crash heard offstage (ala Death of a Salesman). Luke (senior Neil Phelps) consequently falls into a coma, and family and friends gather, grieve and regret (in a manner similar to David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole). Particularly rocked is the young man’s lover, Adam (sophomore Morgan Jellison), who comes to contention with Luke’s morally conservative father, Butch (junior John Bird). Through flashback, the actors relate the five-year relationship between Luke and Adam, now rent by Luke’s potentially fatal accident. It’s a story we’ve all heard before: the crippling of a mutual acquaintance unites two warring factions, separated by ideological differences. Big deal, right?
Thankfully for us, and the cast and crew of Knox’s production, Geoffrey Nauffts is not concerned with original storytelling. Coming from an acting background, Naufft’s main focus rests on the development of character and, indeed, that is where Next Fall is most successful. Ancillary characters like Holly (junior Sam Auch) and Brandon (sophomore Caleb Awe) appear on stage to advance the plot. But in the dramatic world of Geoffrey Nauffts, those moments are more than long enough to explore the depth of those characters’ personalities. Awe’s deadpan delivery as Brandon suggests a man grappling with private sorrows underneath the surface and Auch’s Holly bubbles as a defense against uncomfortable conversation matter. Similarly, senior Mya Kahler’s performance as Luke’s mother, Arlene, is at turns both humorous and poignant, subverting our preconceived notions of comic relief characters as one-dimensional.
The most character development, however, occurs within the relationships of the “holy trinity”: Adam, Luke and Butch. Of course, Adam and Luke receive the lion’s share, as it is their love that is explored in flashback. But for the majority of their five years together, the pair seems surprisingly stagnant, ideologically speaking. A devout Christian, Luke feels certain that the rapture will come within his lifetime. Adam disagrees, and since this religious discrepancy is a central argument in their relationship, it is this part of their characters that we get to see the most often. On the surface, this stagnancy can become grating after a while. Jellison’s slightly neurotic, often belligerent Adam makes us question why the two have been together for so long.
And then Luke dies. His organs are donated and he is left to pass away. And Adam doesn’t appear changed, at least on the surface. His tone of voice is still loud and forward, but when he speaks to Luke’s brother, his declaration of “My name is Adam” sounds absolutely revelatory. Contrast this with Butch’s journey. Unaware of his son’s homosexuality, the man has spent his life shouting down any opinion that disrupts his worldview. Upon learning that his son is dead, moments after finding out that Luke was gay, Butch crumbles: he sinks, sobbing into Adam, in the most beautiful student performance I have ever seen. He, clearly, is a changed man. His defenses have broken down and, upon leaving the hospital we know that his conduct, like Adam’s ideology, will never be the same.
This is the strength of director Jeff Grace’s production of Next Fall. Nauffts’ exploration of religion at times feels very heavy-handed and the play is always under threat of being overtaken by Christian imagery and themes. Grace and his crew wisely choose to de-emphasize the religious content, focusing instead on the very real implications tragedy has on different individuals. It grounds the play, making Next Fall a relatable rather than ethereal journey into the depths of human sorrow.