Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Church and State
Raven Players
Review by Jeanie K. Smith | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's reviews of Baby Doll and Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Jeanie's review of Guys and Dolls

Matt Farrell, Priscilla Locke, Katie Watts-Whitaker,
and Zack Acevedo

Photo by Ray Mabry
Blatantly political, Church and State seeks to awaken your sensibilities regarding religion, government, and gun control, wrapping the substantive debates in a veneer of humorous banter and stereotypical characters. Playwright Jason Odell Williams lulls the audience in a comfortable comedic vein, but then delivers a serious punch meant to challenge preconceptions and encourage action. Raven Players is staging a credible and ultimately powerful version of this timely piece, conveying its unequivocal message just in time for midterm elections.

North Carolina Senator Charles "Charlie" Whitmore (Matt Farrell) is just three days shy of a re-election bid, and due to give an important campaign speech. He's groomed by his campaign manager Alex Klein (Katie Watts-Whitaker), a savvy New Yorker determined to log another win on her resume and ride this pony all the way to the Oval Office. But tonight she's worried, as the Senator is clearly off his game and thinking of improvising his speech.

Whitmore's society matron, steel-magnolia wife Sara (Priscilla Locke) for once agrees with Klein, arguing with Charlie to present his canned speech as written—but the stakes climb higher when it's revealed that Charlie's religious beliefs and political platform have been thrown into doubt after a tragic mass shooting at his own son's elementary school. At a victim's funeral, Whitmore spills damaging information to a random blogger whose tweet threatens to go viral, destroying any hope of re-election.

As Whitmore wrestles with conscience, the debate intensifies, fairly torn from recent headlines and op-ed essays. The author invites us to listen carefully to all sides of the discussion before presenting a surprising, thought-provoking and resonant conclusion. Given the locale for this production, he's likely preaching to the choir, but there's still considerable food for thought.

Farrell at first seems an unlikely seasoned politician, but he rises to the fray and nails the finale. Locke veers too often into caricature, a flaw in the script perhaps that is unavoidable—the character is the most stereotypical of the play, spouting annoying malapropisms and supposed Southernisms that make her appear ignorant—yet she's given the weight of intelligent debate opposite her husband, a hard fence to walk. Watts-Whitaker fails to convey urban sophisticate New Yorker, and there's not enough contrast between her and the wife—but her earnest concern for her candidate does come through. Zack Acevedo rounds out the cast, charmingly playing several minor roles, one of whom actually inspires the Senator with a simple analogy.

Potential laughs are lost in uneven timing, but director Steven David Martin keeps the important debate front and center and the pacing at an engaging clip. Set design by Julie Raven-Smart has to serve two productions running in repertory, but the stage feels too wide for this play; the characters are sometimes too far apart for conversation. Overall, though, the staging is fine as a launch pad for the play's central message.

The timeliness and meaningful power of the play can't be ignored. Give yourself something worth thinking about with this engrossing production.

Church and State, through October 7, 2018, by Raven Players, at Raven Performing Arts Theater, 115 North Street, Healdsburg CA. Tickets $10.00-$25.00 can be purchased online at or by phone at 707-433-6335.