There are times when a trip to the theatre is a welcome break from everyday life, and the political issues that we as a country deal with on a day to day basis. There are other times when you see a show and it takes those issues and forces you to consider what your viewpoints actually are, and more importantly, question why you believe what you do.
Church and State, written by Jason Odell Williams is the latter. Williams first was inspired to write the show after the Virginia Tech campus shooting in 2007, and continued working on the show after the Tucson shooting that involved U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords. As he was contemplating the attacks in Aurora and New Town, he continued to write. The play originally opened in L.A., June of 2016, two weeks after the massacre at Pulse Orlando.
Church and State, produced by RKP Theatre Productions, in partnership with Out North Theatre opened last weekend, and once again, could not possibly be more timely. Billed as a play about the politics of God and guns, it explores how we deal with these tragedies using a blend of comedy and drama.
The show opens backstage, three days before the vote to re-elect Senator Charles “Charlie” Whitmore, played expertly by Mark Stoneburner. He is ready to go out and make one of his final speeches on the campaign trail, until he admits to his wife Sara (Linnea Hollingsworth) and campaign manager Alex (Danielle Rabinovitch) that he is having a crisis of faith, which has led him to question where he stands on the conservative issues and policy that got him into office in the first place. To add to the mounting problems, there may have been a story leaked on “The Twitter” where the Senator has admitted to a blogger his uncertainty about God, and where he stands on gun control.
The set design is simple, yet perfectly suited to the show. Doug Frank and his team have created as fine a green room as any arena or theatre that I have been in. With lighting design by Frank Hardy, and sound design from Jan Welt the space becomes everything it needs to be to take the audience on the journey. The elements are important because the 90-minute show does not have an intermission, and seamless scene changes make the time fly by.
Stoneburner is well cast in the role of the Senator, and his emotions ring true while he struggles with doing what is expected of him, and what he believes to be right. It takes an actor of a certain level of skill to stand out when facing off against not just one, but two actresses who bring their own strength and ferocity to their parts. Hollingsworth as the southern Senator’s wife is wonderful, while she attempts to counsel her husband to do the ‘Christian thing,’ and stick with the voters that have gotten them this far. She also provides quite a bit of the comedy in a show about a topic that is hard to infuse with levity. Rabinovitch is a standout as the campaign manager. Some of her strongest moments come when she is silently reacting to the chaos around her, trying to avoid a total meltdown while staying professional.
Richard Reichman cast his three leads well, and despite some stumbling over lines, they all played their characters with honesty and heart. Skylar Davis picks up all of the smaller roles as an aide, security, reporter and more. None of the characters he played had very many lines, but each one was nuanced, and at times I found myself forgetting that it was the same actor in different outfits.
Costuming in the show did more than succeed, and Audrey Kelly should be proud of her achievement. From shoes and jewelry, to slogans printed on hats and t-shirts, the costuming told a large part of the story, and gave insight into each character, even when, like the Senator, his pants and tie were chosen by someone else.
While this show might be about gun control, it also explores the role of social media in current political debate, what happens when politics get personal, and the role of religion and God in, not just our government but also our lives. At one point a character says “I thought the point of this country was to keep God out of politics,” and it sparks an entirely new debate.
Jason Odell Williams has stated that most writers want their works to become timeless, but that he hopes that one day this show is considered obsolete. Today is not that day. So close to yet another mass shooting, this time in Las Vegas, conversations need to be had, but more importantly action needs to be taken.
RKP Productions has taken action by inviting the audience to stick around for an open discussion following each performance. Perhaps keeping an open mind, and listening to the ideas of others is a good place to start.