Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The play focuses on the reelection campaign of North Carolina Republican Senator Charles Whitmore, whose campaign slogan is "Jesus Is My Running Mate," as he struggles against his faith in the days after a shooting that left 29 dead at the elementary school his own sons attend. Shortly before the play begins, Whitmore attended the funeral of the two sons of his friend who were killed in the shooting which left him shocked, shaken and confused by the events. Outside the funeral he was confronted and questioned by a blogger which resulted in Whitmore stating "How could I believe in a God who would let this happen?" The potential negative impact that statement has on his reelection chances with his God-loving, Second Amendment supporting base and this sudden change in his beliefs cause friction with both his campaign manager Alex Klein, a Jewish Democrat woman from New York, and his wife Sara, an upfront and honest woman who is getting tired of standing on the sidelines. Whitmore's decision to speak from the heart, unrehearsed, at an event just days before election day, and right as the news is breaking about the statement he made, sets in motion an interesting plot with events that are both realistic and shocking and that play right into the ongoing national conversation on the issue of gun control.
Williams' 75-minute, one-act play moves fairly fast and includes natural dialogue and identifiable characters, though, as well-written as it is, I highly doubt it will change anyone's beliefs on either God or gun control. Rosemary Close's direction is fairly consistent, though there are some comical lines sprinkled throughout the script to help balance the serious topics that aren't really that humorous and thus don't land that well. Christopher Haines' production design effectively portrays the backstage location of the college venue where the two scenes are set, and Elle Broeder's sound design works well to represent the various media sound clips that propel the show along.
iTheatre's cast is fairly good in creating realistic portrayals, with Scott Hyder especially adept in the way he shows how the conservative Christian Senator Whitmore is conflicted in his feelings and starts questioning his beliefs. Lindsey Marlin is very good as Alex, instilling her with both confidence and steely determination in her quest for success. As Whitmore's wife Sara, Marlene Galan-Woods has to balance the role of the devout wife with the voice of reason while also appearing drunk at one point. She manages through these changes successfully, though is best when Sara attempts to reason with her husband and questions if this change will impact their marriage. Hyder and Galan-Woods' southern accents are fairly consistent throughout and they display a nice natural connection with each other. Eric Bond plays several small parts and manages to create varied and different characters.
Church & State is a well written play that portrays how one man's midlife crisis forces him to ponder following the truth, his convictions, and his principles over wisdom and simply towing the party line, as well as how doubt and even redemption play into a person's decision making. It's an interesting expose of the obstacles faced when serving the public and also how one's values can change when they are confronted with a horrifying incident. The recent school shootings have clearly struck a chord with the nation. We are at a pivotal point in history and, as is stated in the play, we "can't go back to business as usual" anymore. The time of standing behind empty "thoughts and prayers" is clearly in the past, which makes this play, and this production, incredibly relevant.
Church & State at iTheatre Collaborative, through May 19th, 2018, in downtown Phoenix at the Herberger Theater Center. Information for this show and upcoming productions can also be found at www.itheatreaz.org.
Written by Jason Odell Williams
* Member, Actors' Equity Association