BWW Review: Theatre Contest a GIFT to Columbus

Prodigal Brothers' Steven Peterson

In two years, the Grace InFused Theatre Festival went from the drawing table to a full day event at the Columbus Performing Arts Center on Aug. 6. The festival, which promotes gospel-based productions, drew close to 100 people to a six-hour presentation that featured the world-premiere of STAINED GLASS a table reading of PRODIGAL BROTHERS, two monologues by Howi Tiller and the music of Joe Hendrickson.

Patrick Strain, who wrote, directed and played the role of Conway Harding in STAINED GLASS, saw unlimited potential for the growth of the festival.

"I think (the GIFT Festival) is important as an intersection of arts and faith," said Strain, who brought eight of his nine actors with him from Wisconsin. "As someone who is writing about faith issues, I can tell you there are very few theatres that are performing Christian plays and I don't know any of them who are holding festivals similar to this. I think a festival like this is vital for raising the bar for what the audience expects from Christian drama."

If audience goers expected to see the typical Pollyannaish productions at the GIFT Festival, they walked away a very different impression. Both STAINED GLASS and PRODIGAL BROTHERS were far from the Christian mainstream, everything-works-out-in-the-end type of performances.

PRODIGAL BROTHERS, Steven Peterson's interpretation of the story of the Prodigal Son, walked away with the Jack Gilbert Award for the festival's best play. Gilbert, a distinguished Christian writer and writing coach in Hollywood, was a long-time advocate of fusing mainstream arts and entertainment with the Gospel message.

Peterson's play, which is still in the development stage, centers on Matt (Scott Clay) going out to Los Angeles to retrieve his younger, alcoholic brother Billy (Cory Ragan) and take him to a rehabilitation center in Chicago.

Asked by an audience member afterward how much research he had to do for the script, Peterson explained he had a family member who struggled with alcoholism.

"Unfortunately for some of those events, it didn't require a lot of research. I got to see a lot of that close up," said Peterson, who won the Julie Harris Playwrights Award twice and the Dorothy Silver Playwriting Competition for previous works.

Peterson revealed the relative has not seen the play yet.

"I explained it to him what it was about and he nodded his head and said 'Oh, that's interesting,'" Peterson said. "That's what many family members say to playwrights when they are writing about family matters."

Even in the staged reading format, Clay and Ragan did an exceptional job in bringing together the dysfunctional yet love-centered relationship between two brothers. Paul Lee, who played the widowed father of the two boys, and Martha Katherine Smith, who played all six female roles from Amber the Prostitute to LeeAnne the rehab intake coordinator, played strong supporting roles.

STAINED GLASS dealt with some of the real world issues facing the church today, including gay marriage, prejudice, and hypercritical attitudes. I asked a pastor sitting next to me if he could relate to the play. He smiled and said "This is like every Monday."

Aiding the believability of the show was solid performances by Leah Harvey (Sophia Lumens), Dana Qualy (Pastor Rachel Paulsen), Colleen Murphy (Charlie Romano), Mitchell Gray (Rich Saunders), Elizabeth Gauger (Susannah Hyde), Strain (Conway Harding), Jill Emerson (Naomi Stone), Frank Gauger (Kurt Hyde) and Columbus native Buff Delcamp (Alan Zastron). Even with such a volatile subject, Strain's script presented both sides fairly and left it up to the audience to decide who was right and who was guilty.

"My hope is that no matter what side you are on in this issue, that you are challenged and have some increased sympathy for people on the other side," Strain said. "It's not just the 'liberal demons' who are trying to send us to hell in a handbasket or the conservative neo-Nazis who want to put everyone who has a different opinion in jail. What is scary to me is when we look at people on the other side of an issue and condemn them outright without having a conversation."

Tiller, the Nashville-based founder of "The World Alive Christian Drama Ministries," delivered two stirring monologues before each of the plays.

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From This Author Paul Batterson

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