By Bill Hirschman
Main Street Players’ Church & State, a play about the collision of faith, politics and a hunger for gun control after a tragic school shooting, obviously could not be more timely or more resonant for South Florida audiences.
Jason Odell Williams’ 2016 drama leavened with humor makes its ultimate judgment clear by the surprising finale, but in the 75-minute running time, he ensures that conflicting beliefs are explored with fairness and respect.
Unfortunately, Main Street Players, which has delivered some fine memorable work like its True West and Bad Jews, stumbles here although no one can be faulted for not investing their earnestness.
Williams’ oft-produced script is the strongest element, which inherently honors the sincerity and good will of irreconcilable views pressed forward with passion. Doubtless, everyone connected to this production cares deeply about the messages it is sending. But this edition never is convincing enough to allow you to forget you are watching a constructed piece of theater. Flaws undercut what had the potential to be a moving engrossing evening.
North Carolina’s junior senator Charles Whitmore is about 15 minutes away from giving his standard conservative stump speech three days before an election for a second term. Trying to calm him are his controlled and controlling perfect pearls wife Sara who loves the social status of being a senator’s wife, and his tightly wound New York campaign manager Alex Kline who sees the possibility that she might be able to get him in the White House someday.
The Whitmores have just attended the funeral for 29 children killed in a local elementary school shooting including playmates of their sons. Unknown to the women, a religion-oriented blogger had been interviewing Charlie just after the service whose disquiet had been mounting all day. Under pressure, he admitted that his belief in God has been shaken if He could allow this tragedy. As the play opens, the manager spots that campaign crippling remark going viral on Twitter.
As the clock ticks, the normally genial Charlie — whose slogan is Jesus Is My Running Mate — is coming increasingly unwound by the realization of an epiphany challenging what he has based his life on. Now, Charlie wants to scrap his boilerplate speech to reflect his growing concerns about faith and the need for more gun control – even though he has always supported the Second Amendment and still does. Thoughts and prayers, no matter how sincere, are not going to fix anything, he declares; people must take responsibility and action.
But the women work to discourage his idea of altering his previous stance on weapons – which, combined with the Twitter story, would be political suicide in most of North Carolina.
The play takes twists that we won’t reveal, but Charles and Sara – a devout Christian but also pragmatic campaigner — have frank discussions about faith, tragedy, political realities, gun control, and staying true to what you believe. As described elsewhere, the play examines “how religion influences politics and how politics has become a religion.”
At one point Sara says – and means it – that Charlie’s public service, maybe even the tragedy, is part of God’s will. To back away from his standard vanilla campaign speech is counter to what Charlie has always believed. But an agonized Charlie says later with dark humor, “I don’t know ‘What would Jesus do?’ ”
Williams often mixes in comedy, which belies the overall serious tone of the work. But his quips coming from Alex and Sara are pretty funny. Sara says something offhand about Alex being a lesbian. Alex responds, “For the hundredth time, I’m not gay.” To which Sara smoothly shoots back, “You’re a Democrat from New York, it’s the same thing.”
The most serious flaw is the casting of the experienced actor Anthony Linzalone as a good ol’ boy and second generation politician. Mr. Linzalone is tall, tanned and good-looking, the model of a middle-aged political figure on the rise. And then he opens his mouth. I’m not sure which borough of New York City Mr. Linzalone hails from but it doesn’t take long for that urban brogue to overpower his attempt at a Carolina accent that had mostly consisted of some elongated vowels. His real tri-state accent and phrasing echoes old TV sitcom characters like Buddy and Sally on The Dick Van Dyke Show. A word of advice from someone whose family has lived there since 1970: The state capital is pronounced rah-lee not raw-lee and the residents are not car-o-line-ians but car-o-lin-ians.
This is crucial because no matter how heartfelt the actor is in saying Charlie’s lines, every minute of that sound undercuts the suspension of disbelief that we are watching a son of the South; it makes him sound like he is reciting lines rather than inhabiting his character. Further, while Charlie is struggling with a crisis of conscience, we doubt Williams meant Whitmore to come off as a hapless buffoon and clearly not the sharpest knife in the drawer, as this one in this production.
Christy Antonio is far better as Sara, especially in the authenticity of her faith and that velvet covered steel interior. She has a nice way of spinning a wry laugh line like, “We’ll have to move overseas — or at least up north.” But her part forces her character to be revealed in the second half as an alcoholic, which might work on paper but not in this production. Melissa Bibliowicz makes a fine Alex, a cultural fish out of water laser-focused on nursing this candidate to success. David Brzostowicki plays the blogger, a TV reporter and an aide.
The production has other shortcomings. Director Robert Coppel’s staging 89 percent of the time is to have two or three characters stand in place lined up in a single plane, occasionally sitting down. Sometimes they touch each other and even kiss, but most of the time everybody just stands stock still in a line as they deliver their scripted dialogue.
The play has been mounted many times including a run at New World Stages in NYC and by members of the National New Play Network, which sponsored it as one its Rolling World Premiere projects. A year ago, to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a nation-wide series of staged readings took place at eight universities across the country including New World School of The Arts.
Credit Main Street Players for choosing to produce a thought-provoking play that will force audience members to discuss the issues on the ride home.
Church & State runs through March 1 from Main Street Players, 6766 Main Street, Miami Lakes. Performances 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time 75 minutes with no intermission. Tickets $30 for adults; $25 for seniors, students and military. Visit http://www.mainstreetplayers.com/tickets/