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Ad Astra Theatre's 'Visions of Right,' based on Westboro Baptist Church, to make Lawrence debut Friday

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If you grew up around northeast Kansas, or anywhere in the Sunflower State, you’re probably familiar with the Westboro Baptist Church, the Phelps clan and their picketing of military funerals, gay-rights organizations and just about everything else under the sun. The church, classified as a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, has a wide reach, and not just in Kansas, obviously.

Before the Phelpses and their followers head west to picket the Golden Globes ceremony in Los Angeles and a public high school in Redondo Beach, Calif., this weekend, its members will make a stop in Lawrence — this time to protest a play based on the Westboro Baptist Church and its controversial tactics opening Friday at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St.

Staged by the Ad Astra Theatre Ensemble and penned by award-winning Topeka playwright Marcia Cebulska, “Visions of Right” tells the story of a Topeka-bred photographer, who, spurred by tragedy, returns home from New York and finds herself — and her art — the subject of protest by the Zion Primitive Baptist Church, a fictionalized version of the Westboro congregation.

Matt Briden and Jesyca Rodenberg run through a scene during a dress rehearsal of Marcia Cebulska's "Visions of Right" Wednesday evening at the Block Box Theater inside of the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St. The play runs Friday and Saturday evening, beginning at 7:30 p.m. both nights.

Matt Briden and Jesyca Rodenberg run through a scene during a dress rehearsal of Marcia Cebulska's "Visions of Right" Wednesday evening at the Block Box Theater inside of the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St. The play runs Friday and Saturday evening, beginning at 7:30 p.m. both nights. by John Young

Friday marks the Lawrence debut of the play, which premiered last fall in Topeka to critical praise (the Chicago Dramatists, where Cebulska developed the script, applauded its “moments of transcendence, of epiphany, of illumination") and condemnation from the Westboro Baptist Church, calling it “blasphemous,” naturally.

“There was an appetite for more performances, and Lawrence is a different market,” says Darren Canady, an assistant professor of English at Kansas University and director of both productions. “We just really believed in the piece and what it said about life here in the Midwest and how we think about right and wrong.”

The story of the Westboro Baptist Church is inherently Midwestern, says Canady, who grew up in Topeka and, not unlike “Visions of Right” protagonist Christina, spent time in New York City before moving back to Kansas.

Christina, after hearing the attacks on her Jewish husband and gay best friend by Rev. Noah Jones, a character modeled off of Westboro Baptist leader Fred Phelps, throws herself into a crusade against the church.

But Christina ultimately begins to question her fight. No character, including Christina, as she ultimately realizes, is completely “pure,” Canady says. Instead, “Visions of Right” explores the gray area of humanity.

“The power of the play is that Rev. Jones is not presented as a boogeyman. Even if there’s not a rational basis for what he does, in his mind, he’s carrying out the will of his creator,” Canady says. “It’s easy for Christina to be dismissive of the reverend, but when she starts to wonder, ‘Why did certain things happen to me, and what has that done to my husband, my friends, my art?’ she begins to realize, ‘Maybe I’ve been looking at things in the wrong way.’”

From left, Jesyca Rodenberg, Matt Briden and Craig Fisher run through a scene during a dress rehearsal of Marcia Cebulska's "Visions of Right" Wednesday evening at the Block Box Theater inside of the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St. The play runs Friday and Saturday evening, beginning at 7:30 p.m. both nights.

From left, Jesyca Rodenberg, Matt Briden and Craig Fisher run through a scene during a dress rehearsal of Marcia Cebulska's "Visions of Right" Wednesday evening at the Block Box Theater inside of the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St. The play runs Friday and Saturday evening, beginning at 7:30 p.m. both nights. by John Young

In many ways, Christina's return to Topeka represents a misconception that Canady says he experienced with New Yorkers — that culture originates on the coasts and then makes its way to the Midwest. Not so, says Canady, who likens Kansas in particular to the country’s “laboratory.”

“Whether you’re talking about Bleeding Kansas or Brown v. Board or Westboro Baptist Church, things touch off in Kansas before they roll downhill,” he says. “The populism that’s part of the heritage in Kansas means that Kansas is at the forefront of a lot of social and political discussions.”

After the play’s premiere in Topeka, Canady and others involved with the production participated in a series of conversations with audience members.

Topics ran the gamut from personal responsibility (“How did they ignore the Phelpses as long as they did within the larger Topeka community?"), to the role of art in political and social issues, to marriage and how withholding secrets can affect relationships with those closest to us.

Canady hopes this weekend’s production will generate conversations of its own.

“I think that we talk at each other a lot, but discussion and discourse, I’m not sure of, so if actual discussion and discourse happen at all, I’m happy,” he says. “But if there were something that I’d want people to really take away from this, it’s discussion of, ‘What makes us human? What pushes us to act in the ways we do?’”

'Visions of Right' runs Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. the Lawrence Arts Center. Tickets cost $15 for adults, $12.50 for seniors and $10 for students, and can be purchased online at www.lawrenceartscenter.org or by calling 843-2787.

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