07/04/2012 02:51 pm ET | Updated Sep 03, 2012

Living Life on Their Own Terms

Most people recall the phrase "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" as they celebrate Independence Day. Some, however, think of what individual freedom means when it comes to defying the expectations of others.

In 1971 I met a man who taught me the value of taking risks. Not only did Chuck like to shock people, he made a habit of pushing back against the conventional wisdom. He didn't hesitate to look a person in the face and read them their beads (an old gay slang term for telling someone off). He certainly knew how to make a grand entrance and an equally memorable exit.

Had he been so inclined, Chuck could have been a really rude stand-up comedian. But when I met him he was simply a small town queer with a fast mind and a big mouth who was desperate to leave Fall River, Massachusetts in search of a bigger playground.

Chuck Cleaves in 1973

During the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival, three short films reminded me of Chuck's refusal to live the kind of "polite" lifestyle his parents had planned for him. Aquadettes (by Zackary Canepari and Drea Cooper) is set in an Orange County retirement community where a group of elderly women like to practice synchronized swimming as a form of exercise.

One of its residents, Margo Bouer, is a retired psychotherapist and psychiatric nurse who had been subjected to electro-convulsive treatments and psychiatric hospitalization as a child. Pegged as a juvenile delinquent, she escaped from her dysfunctional family and found ways to survive in an adult world.

Margo always feared having her past exposed (even after she had established herself as a professional in the fields of psychiatry and psychoanalytic therapy). Now in her twilight years, multiple sclerosis has made it necessary for her to rely on medical marijuana to ease her chronic nausea.

As I watched Aquadettes, I was grateful to see a new public face for users of medical marijuana. I also wondered how Chuck (who never missed an opportunity to light up a joint) would have felt about the newfound legitimacy of his favorite recreational drug.

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For those who have been told they have a life-threatening disease, the temptation may be to give up hope and wait to die. But for eight-year-old Mack, there is no looking back. Born with dextrocardia (a condition in which the heart is located on the right instead of the left side of the chest), Mack's doctors didn't expect him to live.

Bursting with enthusiasm and grit, this determined, athletic Dutch boy has surprised everyone by racing in motocross competitions and filling a room with his trophies and ribbons. In Willem Baptist's impressive short, I'm Never Afraid! the audience watches Mack and his father prepare for another race, go to the doctor's office, and listens to Mack's sister (who lives in constant fear of going into anaphylactic shock).

Baptist's film is an inspiration for those who think that everyone in the whole wide world is conspiring against them. Here's the trailer:

The ability to tell a powerful story in a limited amount of time is an acquired skill for many filmmakers. Alfie Barker's beautiful short, Imagine, was inspired by a newspaper article that described the real life experience of a man named Shander Herian (who lost his sight during childhood). Barely three minutes in length, Imagine is a deeply moving mini-masterpiece.

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As someone who comes from a family of atheists, I was shocked and delighted to read Greta Christina's recent article about The Clergy Project entitled "Major Threat To Religion? Clergy People Coming Out As Atheists."

Theatre Rhinoceros recently mounted an extremely satisfying production of Kate Fodor's 2007 dramedy, 100 Saints You Should Know. Directed by John Fisher, the play deals with people who find their faith tested with regard to everything from cleaning toilets to vows of celibacy, from the slow and sudden death of closely-held beliefs one always took for granted to the sudden, accidental death of a drunk teenager.

Theresa (Ann Lawler) and Matthew (Wylie Herman) in
100 Saints You Should Know (Photo by: Kent Taylor)

The five characters inhabiting Fodor's play are:

  • Theresa (Ann Lawler), a cleaning woman who is estranged from her family. After many years of not feeling religious, she has recently had some curious urges to pray (accompanied by a feeling that she no longer knows how to do it).
  • Abby (Kim Stephenson), Theresa's self-centered teenage daughter. Full of attitude and seething with resentment, she's in the rebellious stage of questioning everything and everyone (especially her mother, who forgot to leave Abby $10 before heading off to work).
  • Matthew (Wylie Herman), a handsome young Roman Catholic priest who, although still celibate, is grappling with the knowledge that he may be attracted to men in ways that are not merely platonic. Matthew's growing awareness was spiked by the pictures of nude men he saw in an art book at the library. His superiors have recently asked him to take a leave of absence from the church and may not want him to return. Having sensed that his work as a priest no longer feels totally honest, Matthew is thinking of quitting the priesthood.
  • Colleen (Tamar Cohn), Matthew's mother, a devout Irish Catholic for whom there is no greater honor than to have her son called to the priesthood by God. Nor is there a denial mechanism she is unwilling to embrace with regard to her son's very new and human reality.
  • Garrett (Michael Rosen), the teenage boy who delivers groceries to Colleen. Although he's been drinking alcohol on the sly and is curious about the outside world, Garrett is no match for Abby (a manipulative teenager who doesn't intend to be evil, but can occasionally seem mean beyond her years).

Colleen (Tamar Cohn) and her son, Matthew (Wylie Herman) in
100 Saints You Should Know (Photo by: Kent Taylor)

Working with a unit set designed by Jon Wai-keung Lowe, Fisher directed his cast with in a way that let Fodor's writing shine without overindulging his actors. 100 Saints You Should Know is one of those rare surprises: a thoroughly modern play which frames its challenges in human rather than political terms and prefers to have its characters struggle internally rather than engage in physical combat. I especially liked the performances by Wylie Herman (who bears a strange resemblance to Will Ferrell) and Kim Stephenson as Abby.

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape