Church & State – Theatre Review: iTheatre Collaborative, Herberger Center Theater’s Rax Stage, Phoenix

There are two informal subjects we’re taught never to mention in polite conversation. One is politics, the other, religion. Having once moved to North Carolina, there were two things repeatedly asked in friendly Charlotte social settings during those six years of residency, and they never ceased to amaze: Who do you support and what church do you attend; presuming, without question, that you naturally had a faith and you regularly went to worship.

Even though the germ of the idea for the scorching comedy/drama Church & State came shortly after the shooting massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007, setting the play further south in the Carolinian hot bed of politics, Raleigh, is exactly where it should be. When it comes to either politics or religious beliefs, what some theatergoing outsiders may perceive as writer Jason Odell Williams falling back on southern character cliché is, in fact, surprisingly true to form.

The behind-the-scenes shenanigans of political discourse, as presented in the new iTheatre Collaborative production, now playing at Herberger Theater Center’s intimate Kax Stage, is very much the kind you might hear played out by politicians while waiting backstage in the green room at NCSU’s massive Stewart Theatre. Though Williams’ approach to a serious theme is to write from the perspective of comedy, the central character of a southern politician running for re-election, Charles Whitmore, is spot on; it couldn’t be more accurate.

Whitemore (Scott Hyder) is about to go on stage and make his speech. He’s viewed as a ‘Compassionate Conservative,’ a man running on good, christian values (as opposed to bad ones?) and he’s looking for another term in office. But there’s a problem. There’s only minutes to go before he walks on stage, and he’s having a crisis of confidence. He and his wife, Sara (Marlene Gala-Woods) have just attended a funeral service for the 29 people, mostly students, who were murdered at a school shooting in his hometown. The effect for Whitemore was shattering. After all, it could have been his own children’s funeral he was attending.

When both Sara and Whitemore’s sharp, go-getter New York campaign manager, Alex Klein (Lindsey Marlin) asks Whitemore why the hesitancy, he states he may change what he’s going to say to the voters in the packed auditorium. “That’s a terrible idea!” they exclaim, but Whitemore goes on to explain why he may deviate from his carefully prepared speech. “Maybe I don’t believe in God anymore,” he suggests. For a southern politician whose campaign slogan is Jesus Is My Running Mate, declaring a sudden lack of faith to the Carolina faithful could be a problem. Plus, there’s something else.

While at the funeral, a young, local reporter/blogger (Eric Bond) looking for a quote, had thrust a recorder in Whitemore’s face. He asked if the politician turned to prayer at his time of need. “No, I did not,” Whitemore responded, adding that if something needs to be done to curb the series of massacres, then the 29 who were killed require his action, not his prayers. Worse, Whitemore’s anger builds as he ponders over what happened in Tucson, then Aurora, then Newtown (just as writer Williams had done) until finally he has to ask, “How can you believe in a God that lets this happen, over, and over again?” The young blogger has his quote, and more, and proceeds to publicly tweet Whitemore’s response.

As directed by Rosemary Close, running at a scant 75 to 80 minutes, without intermission, Church & State moves so fast, it feels almost over before it’s begun. But that’s more a testament to how gripped you are rather than the brevity of Williams’ script. Whitemore’s moral struggle is the center of the piece. Maybe his stance of honesty in public service is the best and noblest thing he’s ever done, but in politics, and particularly in North Carolina where both the sincerity of voters in their spiritual beliefs and their unwavering defense in the right to keep and bear arms are paramount, this could be political suicide. Hyder, who brought a warm level of sincerity as Herbie in Theater Works’ recent production of Gypsy, successfully conveys Whitemore’s inner conflict and makes this compassionate conservative feel all too real. The character is sincere, and it’s Hyder’s performance with a serviceable southern accent that gives Whitemore that sense of authenticity. Cast the wrong performer and it all falls apart. Hyder gets it right.

Equally good are both Lindsey Marlin as the ambitious campaign manager with sights on Washington, and Marlene Galan-Woods as the force-of-nature politician’s wife, Sara. In this relationship, Whitemore may be wearing the pants, but it’s Sara who tells him which ones to put on. Humor, particularly political satire, is all the funnier when the dialog is based on truths, and Sara has plenty of truths to spout. Fearing the backlash that may occur if her husband speaks from the heart rather than a prepared script, she declares they may have to move overseas, “Or worse,” she adds, “Up north.” There are three things important to North Carolina voters, she explains to her husband; faith, family, and football. When Whitemore points out that she doesn’t even like football, she replies, “Football is like God: I don’t need to see it to know it’s there.” Though perhaps the play’s best analogy belongs to Eric Bond’s young campaign errand-runner, Tom. His comparison of how God and bottled water are the same is priceless. For the liberal-minded who has always wanted to explain why an adherence to one particular religion over another is not the path to true spirituality, you’ll want to take notes. You’ll be quoting Tom at every opportunity for some time to come.

The humor and comedic observances of the play’s first half will give way to a shocking and unexpected occurrence in the second, with consequences that, once again, feel authentic. The final, Aaron Sorkin styled speech gives the script a satisfying, emotional kick, even if in reality it sounds like the well written words of a clever playwright delivered by an experienced actor rather than something a real politician would ever say, but it remains the emotional payoff the evening requires.

Ultimately, perhaps the play is preaching to the choir, but it does so in such an urgent and intelligent manner, you can’t help but hope that, like Whitemore’s conscience, someone, somewhere will reevaluate their beliefs as a result of seeing this well crafted iTheatre Collaborative production. Jason Odell Williams’ Church & State is a great new play.

Church & State is performing at Herberger Center Theater’s Kax Stage until May 19

Pictures Courtesy of Christopher Haines

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