The tension in Katherine Cortez’ new play, In the Valley of the Shadow, starts right at the top with an unsettling, chaotic soundscape. A young man named Rafi (Dylan Arnold) sits on a stool in a t-shirt with faded, red stains, gotten, perhaps, from careless painting or brushing up against rusted metal. Soon a policeman (Larry Poindexter) enters who is concerned and gentle with the young man. What is going on? What has happened? A distraught young woman, Carmen (Tania Verafield) is brought in trembling and missing a shoe. A vivacious, charismatic, twenty-something man, Enrique (Ethan Rains in a spectacular performance), appears on a platform above, the very picture of an ecstatic gay man. It doesn’t take long to figure out that this play concerns the sickening events that occurred at The Pulse dance club in Orlando, Florida.
Moving back and forth in time, the action centers on Rafi and the growing awareness of his latent homosexuality. He encounters Enrique at an AA meeting he is mandated by the court to attend, the result of a DUI conviction. The contact between them is electric. In later scenes in a dance club, Rafi meets the club’s lesbian owner, Marge (Karen Malina White), and one of her bar tenders, Hawk (Ms. Verifield, bold and assertive in contrast to her role as the diminutive Carmen), both of whom express concern that his thing with Enrique might just be an exploration and not a commitment. They are worried about their friend who is head over heels in love with Rafi.
In later scenes, Bette (Rachel Sorsa) appears. She is Rafi’s smothering mother and a die-hard fundamentalist Christian with ideas about the correct nature of sexual identity that are set in concrete. She pours gasoline onto the internal angst that consumes her son.
The show is cunningly cast with superb actors, four of whom double in strikingly different characters. In addition to Ms. Verifield, Ms. White leaves the expressive demeanor she conjures up as Marge, to appear as a no-nonsense police officer hostile to individuals whose sexuality diverges from the rigid male/female continuum. Mr. Poindexter sheds his plainclothes policeman character to appear with wonderful conviction as Francis, a flamboyant, transgender individual who is smart and wonderfully sympathetic. And Mr. Rains drops the giddy flash of Enrique to become Uri, a tense, edgy guy of unknown sexual inclinations who haunts the club.
The show benefits from an excellent creative staff, starting with smart, fast paced direction by Elina de Santos. The production has skillfully adapted to the excellent set created by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz for Les Blancs, a show also running at Rogue Machine as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Lighting by Andrew Schmedake leads the audience’s collective eye. Amanda Martin’s costumes reinforce character and action, and Christopher Moscatiello’s sound design is superb.
In the Valley of the Shadow runs through June 24 at Rogue Machine Theatre (in The Met), 1089 N. Oxford Ave in Los Angeles.