By: Paulanne Simmons
Like most political plays, Jason Odell Williams’ Church and State is relevant, often riveting and ultimately not particularly good theater. The drama, directed by Markus Potter, focuses on Charles Whitmore (Rob Nagle), a North Carolina politician who is running for senator on a platform of compassionate conservatism. As the play opens, Whitmore is in his campaign office prior to a major speech, suffering from self-inflicted wounds.
As he confesses to Sara (Megan Sikora), his Bible-thumping wife, and Alex Klein (Christa Scott-Reed), his campaign manager, a New York Jew and former Democrat, he may have let slip to a young blogger (Andy Talen) that he doesn’t believe in God. Sara is shocked. Alex is disconcerted. Whitmore stands his ground.
As revealed in a flashback conversation, Whitmore didn’t exactly declare himself an atheist. He merely said that he cannot understand how God could have allowed a recent shooting at a local elementary school that resulted in the death of several students, including friends of his own children. What’s more, now he’s not sure if he wants to deliver the speech that’s been prepared for him or bare his heart to his voters.
Although the audience knows Whitmore does, in fact, tear up the prepared speech, we do not hear exactly what he says. But we do find out that he is swept into office by an overwhelming majority of the voters.
Clearly Whitmore’s victory has something to do with that speech. But the playwright wants to keep us in suspense a while longer, or at least make his work (only a short 75 minutes) long enough to qualify as a play. So what follows are a bunch of unnecessary scenes in which the victorious Whitmore again questions what path he wants to follow, something which one would think has already been addressed by his campaign.
The play doesn’t really get back on track until the final few minutes, which are unexpected, tragic and motivational.
Although Nagle, Sikora, Scott-Reed and Talen (who plays several parts) are all fine, the generic nature of their characters doesn’t give them much to do. Sikora is also hampered by a certain inconsistency that makes Sara a flighty, sexy (albeit fundamentalist) southern belle at the beginning of the play and something very different at the end. And Scott-Reed cannot make us understand why Klein would want to work for a man whose beliefs seem so contrary to her own.
Potter keeps the play moving at a brisk pace and handles the several fadeouts with grace. But he cannot supply the additional content that would make Church and State more than a political polemic.
Church and State ended its run at New World Stages, 340 West 50 Street, June 4.
Photo: Russ Rowland