The definition of "gross indecency" has changed consistently over the past 130 years, muddling the phrase. According to Collins Dictionary, it's a category of crimes involving sex — especially consenting homosexual activity before it was decriminalized.
Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde (better known as Oscar Wilde) was an Irish writer and poet who gained notoriety in the late 1800s. Today, the often-quoted author is remembered for his pithy remarks, his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, his masterpiece play The Importance of Being Earnest and the curious circumstances surrounding his imprisonment and death.
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, written in 1997 by Moisés Kaufman, debuted off Broadway at Greenwich House Theater. The play is staged in Northeast Florida this week at Players by the Sea (PBTS).
"Oscar Wilde is put into the center ring of the trial of the century where he is accused of being a ‘sodomite' in Victorian England, where such activities are strictly outlawed," says Dave Alan Thomas, the play's director. "However, that's only the basic historical event."
Using quoted text from various periods of history as well as transcripts from court records, Gross Indecency is, as Thomas puts it, a "transformational drama." "This play is not one-sided; it presents the accounts of the past and insight into the aftermath and allows the audience to personally reflect on these events," he says.
Thomas was born in Gainesville, grew up in Alachua, received an MFA in theater directing at Florida Atlantic University and moved to Jacksonville in 2007. The 44-year-old, who currently resides in Murray Hill, has his hand in most anything theater-related in Northeast Florida.
"I've been involved in theater all my life," says Thomas. "So I sought out theater opportunities when I moved to Jacksonville. I auditioned and performed in musicals and plays; once I was known, it was easier to find directing positions with an established rapport. I was probably first noticed in the area as Roger De Bris in The Producers at Orange Park Community Theatre."
Thomas went on to direct The Merchant of Venice and Art at PBTS, RED and A Streetcar Named Desire at Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre and The Drowsy Chaperone at Theatre Jacksonville. He's also taken on numerous acting roles, including King Arthur in Monty Python's Spamalot and Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.
As far as his directorial responsibilities for Gross Indecency went, Thomas expected the process to be difficult.
"It is delightfully more tricky than I had first thought, and I cherish artistic challenge," he explains. "I have high standards for myself and for those who work with me on production. The members of this ensemble are striving to meet my goals by doing the work necessary to accomplish the needs of this demanding script."
The cast includes nine actors spanning an age range of four decades —from high school and beyond — and playing an array of characters. Local actor Bill Ratliff, who plays Wilde, is no stranger to working with Thomas — the two began their theater relationship on RED, in which Ratliff played tortured artist Mark Rothko.
"Bill is an actor who unearths hidden layers to characters and accesses and exposes the emotional soul of the roles that he inhabits with artistry," Thomas says. "He doesn't wallow in an emotional swamp; he creates a selective performance from a full range of possibilities. He is gracious and giving and a true ensemble player."
A teacher of theater and English at Middleburg High School by day, Thomas is always looking for a lesson to be taught in the work that he takes on.
"With the trials of Oscar Wilde, the idea of being separated in society by who we are attracted to came into our consciousness," he says. "After Wilde, the world became labeled and divided by sexual identity. Although I've always celebrated diversity and I am an outspoken advocate for equality, I find great beauty in what makes us the same."
No stranger to Wilde's work, Thomas previously directed The Importance of Being Earnest at a school in Pinellas County, wrote a post-graduate essay on how the outspoken author's later years influenced his writing and even dabbled with writing the score for a musical version of The Picture of Dorian Gray.
"The idea of humanity being a single entity, where our differences make us belong to the whole and how we are incomplete without the other, has become a clear lesson from this production," he says of Gross Indecency. "Perhaps it has been since the dawn of time where sexuality is concerned, but it seems that our ongoing worldwide struggles derive from our inability to reconstruct ourselves as one."