BWW Review: CHURCH AND STATE Peers Down The Barrel Of Inconvenient Truths
Who, even among the righteous, in the aftermath of a terrible disaster (take, for example, the loss of 29 children in a school place shooting) has not asked how a god could allow such a thing to happen? But, if you're a politician whose credibility and survival is built on fealty to faith, family, and the Second Amendment, you may be committing political suicide by acknowledging such doubt.
After too many massacres (Virginia Tech, Tucson, Newtown) and an equal amount of unproductive protests and legislative rhetoric, Jason Odell Williams took pen to paper and wrote not a tragedy but a crisp and piercing comedy that gets to the heart and humanity of the "gun" issue.
He titled it CHURCH AND STATE and enveloped his hero, United States Senator Charles Whitmore, in a come to Jesus moment. He's a Southern right wing good old boy steeped in his NRA credentials for whom the tragedy of bullet-ridden children has come too close to home. His is a crisis of conscience and faith that one can only imagine unfolds in the theatre rather than in real life. Would that it might, but even the playwright knows better as he punctuates his play with a jaw-dropping denouement.
The play is not even a year old yet, but it is timely and relevant enough that iTheatre Collaborative has wisely snatched the opportunity to feature it as the closing production of its 15th Anniversary Season. And, by any measure, the production is a triumph of directing and acting.
Director Rosemary Close has executed Williams's vision with the precision of a marksman, guaranteeing that every moment of this one act play is on target and infused with the fullness of its wit and pathos. Her aim is steady and balanced, advantaged by a cast whose chemistry is magical.
Scott Hyder delivers a persuasive and compelling performance as the conscience-stricken and grieving Whitmore, who, hours before a critical campaign speech, has professed his doubts about divinity and prayer to a reporter (the very funny Eric Bond). He contemplates deviating from his canned speech to speak from the heart. Not, of course, without alarm and opposition from his highly disciplined and focused campaign manager, Alex Klein (Lindsey Marlin) and his steadfast and savvy wife, Sara (Marlene Galan-Woods) who believe with near certainty that he'll offend and alienate his constituents ~ thereby deep-sixing not only his career but their deeply desired futures.
Marlin is superb as the pant-suited New York Jewish high-achieving alpha campaign manager who is devoted to her candidate and his potential to some day land her in a spot near the Oval Office. She's a lovable control freak who bristles when Whitmore is about to go off the rail or when he and his wife tangle with malapropisms and incorrect word usage.
Galan-Woods is terrific as Whitmore's wife, the epitome of Southern propriety and religiosity, offset by a relentless ambition for future First Lady-hood and a steely clarity that, while the Senator may wear the pants in the family, she chooses the pants. The play's progress allows Galan-Woods the opportunity to reveal the depth and range of her talent. She wears a variety of moods, from the comical to the sensual to the somber, with aplomb.
Mr. Bond adds a delightful infusion of comic relief as he portrays a number of tangential characters.
For his age, Williams has received a remarkable amount of acclaim, knighted by the L.A. Times as a "postmodern Clifford Odets" and "this country's newest Eugene O'Neill" by the Santa Monica Daily Press. Pretty close to being well-deserved. Certainly, CHURCH AND STATE puts him in the ring as a viable contender.
His play is political theater, unapologetically promoting a point of view that calls for reason, common ground, and sensible solutions, all of which have eluded our nation's grasp. It hammers at the notion that Jesus is the candidate's running mate, leaving one to wonder if his holiness would abide the endless slaughter and uphold the sacred right to bear arms. It challenges the audience with an exhortation that apathy is a four-letter word.
It is, given the current climate, regrettably, a fantasy play as well, and one, whatever your political persuasion may be, that deserves to be seen so that you may contemplate how faith and reason might, in a politically sane and balanced culture, work together.
CHURCH AND STATE runs through May 19th in the Kax Stage at Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix.
Poster credit to iTheatre Collaborative