Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires

Church & State
Berkshire Theatre Group
Review by Fred Sokol | Season Schedule

Also see Zander's reviews of In the Heights and A Night with Janis Joplin and Fred's review of The Royal Family of Broadway


Graham Rowat
Photo by Emma Rothenberg-Ware
Church & State, at Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn through June 30th, is play about gun control, belief in God, and political ambition. Scarily effective, fervently enacted and also laced with multiple comic opportunities, Jason Odell Williams' excellent script yields, in the end, to searing theater.

Senator Charles Whitmore (a convincing Graham Rowat) is running for re-election in North Carolina. A few days before voters go to the polls, school children were shot in a town most familiar to the Senator. He went to the building, reporting "I saw the bloodshed with my own eyes." Whitmore also is said to have made a Twitter comment indicating that, given the gun violence, he is questioning his belief in God.

For the purposes of this play, unabashedly advocating for humane constriction of gun usage, Whitmore has two women in his life. One is his attractive, quintessentially Southern wife, Sara (Judy Jerome). When she learns that her husband might not have total faith in God, she tells him this might be even worse than his having an affair. Actress Keira Naughton plays Alex Klein, who is managing the campaign. A Jewish, liberal, wisecracking, candid, hyper New Yorker, she is a Democrat. The structure of the play allows the women, during the latter portion of this one hour and fifteen minute piece, to spend some moments by themselves.

Rounding out the cast is Andy Talen, who plays a variety of roles, including Tom, Marshall, Reporter, and Security Guy.

Charlotte Cohn, married to the playwright, directs and wisely pushes pace. Her actors, utilizing aisles and the intimate performance space, are energized and specific with their movements. This artistic collaboration is valued and the pair has worked together on other Jason Odell Williams plays.

Charles Whitmore has been a "compassionate conservative," a man who values football, religion, the Second Amendment and more. Now, however, he is shocked by what he has witnessed. His conscience, if it had been resting, is now aroused—forever. He is a conflicted individual who is urged by others to stay the course with all of his prior beliefs and advocacies. After all, he has been a Republican and one whose Christian values have carried him far.

Williams is most adept as he delineates characters. The Senator is an emotional wreck while his saucy wife has the latitude to flaunt and flirt. Alex Klein is perpetually agitated, irritated, and desperate to get Whitmore to listen to her advice.

Playwright Jason Odell Williams has explained that he was influenced and perhaps called to author this play given the tragedies at Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Tucson, Parkland and others. He did not wish to compose a heavy-handed play. Hence, he spices his story with in-your-face comedy, too. Still, he says, "I hope this play speaks to your heart. Because, for me, that's the only reason to write anything: to speak to each other's hearts."

Graham Rowat sports a lengthy list of stage credits. He was superb a few seasons back in the Berkshire Theatre Group production of Constellations. Now, he accurately nails Whitmore's accent and persona from word one and carries forward with consistency, nuance, and drive throughout. Jerome and Naughton are each passionate and fiery—in differing ways. Talen's various roles are important as they provide links within the plot.

While this is, for certain, a play which takes a position and packs an ardent, soulful message, it has been written to be inclusive, with the hope that all people will listen to one another. Thus, Williams' script is a brave one and it benefits from truly incisive performances at the Unicorn. Twice, Whitmore quotes John Lennon, whose lyrics include "God is a concept by which we measure our pain."

Church & State, through June 30, 2018, at Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theatre, 6 East Street, Stockbridge MA. Tickets may be purchased by calling 413-997-4444 or visiting www.BerkshireTheatreGroup.org.


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