Credit: Michael Brosilow

When I was a teenager, the leaders of my church youth group brought up sex a lot—mostly to tell you how off-limits it was. Sex is a gift bestowed on humankind by God, they’d say. But it should only be enjoyed within the bounds of heterosexual marriage. Everything else—adultery, homosexuality, pornography, masturbation, lustful thoughts, premarital hanky-panky, and maybe an especially satisfying sneeze—goes against God’s will.

At the Christian high school I attended, meanwhile, what little sex education I received was the abstinence-only kind. There was little talk of the mechanics of sex, nothing about contraception, and a lot on the wages of sin, which included unplanned pregnancies and pestilential diseases. Fed a steady diet of such teachings, young people are liable to regard sex with a combination of fascination, shame, terror, and complete ignorance. As I did.

When we put a positive spin on this state of confusion, we call it innocence. And innocence—the burden of having it, the longing to get it back—is the major theme of Randall Colburn’s Hesperia, a play first produced by the Right Brain Project in 2010 and now getting a new production—the playwright’s highest-profile gig yet—at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe.

Shortly after the RBP show closed, Colburn told the Reader‘s Kerry Reid that he grew up in an “apolitical, areligious” household, only coming to Jesus when he fell in love with a preacher’s daughter during his freshman year of college. (He also said he no longer describes himself as born again.) Colburn may have arrived late to the party, but in Hesperia he accurately, insightfully, and compassionately conjures up the kind of small-town evangelical world I grew up in.

It’s a world that’s easily, and sometimes deservedly, satirized. First, there’s the obsession with what people do in bed. Then there’s the powerful reek of unhipness given off by the devout thanks to their retrograde wholesomeness and irony-free sincerity. In Colburn’s play, young people sing corny praise songs, go to church socials, and talk casually about “getting saved.” At one point, we see a teenage boy memorizing scripture for a “Bible bee.”

Yet Colburn never pokes fun. One of the play’s five characters, Trick, is a youth minister fond of telling jokes that sound like they came from Laffy Taffy wrappers. He’s kept his virginity well into his 20s, and so has his sheltered cousin Daisy, who divides her free time between church get-togethers and caring for her cat, Enoch.

To Colburn’s credit, neither Trick nor Daisy ever comes across as ridiculous. The playwright knows the difference between being naive and being a fool. Trick in particular seems to have given thoughtful consideration to his faith, and, despite his dogmatism, managed to salvage the most valuable parts of Christianity: forgiveness, empathy, and the promise of a fresh start for prodigal sons and fallen women.

Played by Erik Hellman with a sense of quiet struggle, Trick is far from the stereotypical fanatic—which helps explain his choice of fiancee. Claudia (a somewhat ill-at-ease Kelly O’Sullivan) is a former porn star who fled the west coast for the small midwestern town of Hesperia, near where she grew up. Reeling from a miscarriage and motivated by a mix of self-disgust and nostalgia for a past she never really had, she’s determined to will herself into a state of purity. “I want to be a virgin for you,” she tells Trick. “Tell me I’m a virgin.”

All of the characters are trying to repress the irrepressible. Trick and Daisy want to deny the flesh, Claudia wants to escape the past. The impossibility of doing either becomes clear with the arrival of Ian, Claudia’s longtime leading man and the father of her lost baby. Nathan Hosner’s Ian has a louche sexiness shaded by signs of sadness and fatigue—a combination perfectly suited to a past-his-prime porn star.

He takes up residence in Hesperia and even flirts with getting saved. But his primary intention is to win back Claudia. He contents himself in the meantime with romancing Daisy, who, in Rebecca Buller’s spirited yet vulnerable performance, rushes headlong into the minefield of sex.

Colburn is careful not to take sides, allowing the collision between his worldly and naive characters to unfold with a blend of wistfulness and hard truth. In the end, we’re reminded that you can’t unlearn what you know or undo what you did, and that gaining experience inevitably involves losing something else. As Little Red Riding Hood puts it in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, “Isn’t it nice to know a lot! And a little bit not.”