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By Ken Trainor
The marriage equality movement has picked up considerable momentum in the past year, but not all of the efforts are concentrated on the state legislature in Springfield (where the Senate approved same-sex marriage and a vote in the House is pending). At 7:30 p.m. this Sunday at the Arts Center of Oak Park, 200 N. Oak Park Ave. (in the auditorium upstairs from the Hemingway Museum), the Oak Park Area Lesbian and Gay Association (OPALGA) will present 8, a staged reading of the play by Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk), based on the transcripts of Perry v. Schwarzenegger, challenging California's Proposition 8, which rescinded the legality of same-sex marriage in that state.
The local production is the brainchild of Brad Bartels, former co-chair of OPALGA, who had seen the webcast of the star-studded L.A. production of 8 last year (the cast included George Clooney and Brad Pitt) and decided to submit a proposal to the American Foundation for Equal Rights, the sole sponsor of the federal court challenge to Prop 8 (the Supreme Court is scheduled to begin hearing arguments on March 26), and Broadway Impact, billed as "a grassroots organization of theater artists and fans mobilized in support of marriage equality." The two groups have teamed up to coordinate a series of staged readings of the play nationwide.
To strengthen their bid, Bartels, who is currently board president of Oak Park's Festival Theatre, decided to bring local groups together to support the effort.
"I wasn't aware of multiple theater companies coordinating," Bartels said, "and I thought it was a great opportunity to bring the artistic community together."
Kevin Bellie, former artistic director of Circle Theatre signed on, as did Festival Theatre's artistic director Jack Hickey and Kevin Theis, both of whom are performing in the reading.
Directing the production is Ann Filmer, co-founder of 16th Street Theater in Berwyn, who has lived in this area for 20 years but grew up in Silicon Valley. Familiar with the play through the L.A. production, she was "struck by the emotional testimony" of the two same-sex couples highlighted in the play. "Our mission is to tell the stories of all people," Filmer said. "We see theater as a form of dialogue, so this was perfect."
She was also moved by how the witnesses who testified in favor of Prop 8 under oath made such a weak case against gay marriage.
"After all," she observed, "what's so scary about love and commitment?"
One of the more dramatic moments, Bartels said, is when the lead witness for the National Organization for Marriage melts down on the stand.
"It's not just a court transcript," Bartels said. The play goes beyond the legal proceedings to "what marriage means to the couples and their families."
During the short time same-sex marriage was legal in California (before Prop 8 reversed the California legislature, following a referendum in 2008), some 18,000 Californians were married legally and now those marriages are in limbo.
One of those couples is Megan Cavanagh and her wife Ann. Cavanagh grew up in River Forest, graduated from OPRF High School, and landed a role in the hit film A League of Their Own in 1992. Her acting career has continued, and she came home from L.A. to be part of this production. She plays against type as Maggie Gallagher, a fierce opponent of gay marriage. Bartels said they also landed Dean Richards, the WGN Morning Show entertainment reporter, who plays the judge.
The production is timely, Bartels said, in terms of Illinois, and he's confident the measure will pass here. But the ultimate prize is federal recognition.
"There are 1,138 federal rights granted through marriage," he pointed out, "that are not currently available to same-sex couples." Filing a joint tax return is the most obvious example.
For a staged reading, the cast is large, Filmer said, with 21 actors from a number of theater companies around the Chicago area, including regulars from Steppenwolf and Goodman theaters.
"I enjoy it when theater and documentary come together," she said, "real people and their actual words. For me it's all about the words and the actors. I'm not dazzled by technical wizardry. What we do best is people interacting. That's every bit as engaging."
The play lasts 90 minutes, followed by a discussion.
Bartels noted that the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s forced a lot of people to "come out" about their sexual orientation, and that had a big impact on public attitudes and acceptance.
"It's one thing to be scared of the boogeyman," he said. "It's different when it's your nephew."
Film, TV and theater have also helped change the public mind about same-sex marriage, and 8 is part of that effort.
"This is about making it accessible and understandable to people," he said.
The March 10 production is also sponsored by Windy City Media Group, Visit Oak Park, the Village of Oak Park Community Relations Commission, and Wednesday Journal.