by Barbara Waldinger

What an impact a director can have on the success of a play!  Jason Odell Williams’ Church and State, having been produced last season by Berkshire Theatre Group on the Unicorn’s proscenium stage, is currently running at Circle Theatre Players’ Fuess Performing Space at Sand Lake Center for the Arts.  Director Patrick White completely ignores the space’s stage and sets the play practically in the lap of the audience—and that has made all the difference.

Church and State takes place in the green room backstage at North Carolina State’s University Theatre.  Senator Charles Whitmore (Paul Murphy), a Compassionate Conservative who is running for a second term, prepares to address the students three days before Election Day.  To the consternation of his Jesus-loving wife (Dianne DeSantis) and northern Jewish campaign manager (Elisa Verb), he decides to rip up his speech and speak from the heart, letting his right-wing audience know that his original positions on faith and gun control have evolved because of a shooting at his children’s school.

From the moment we enter the theatre, we are thrust into the middle of this political campaign.  Actor Sam Mikit, wearing a red “Whitmore for Senate” hat, greets theatregoers with a pin inscribed with the same logo, and sports a t-shirt saying “Jesus is my running mate.”  Thanks to White and his group of set designers and builders, the walls are plastered with red, white and blue bunting, flags, and banners.  A North Carolina State Wolfpack design is emblazoned on a large circular board.  Small platforms create an open playing area with seating on two sides, enhanced by the work of the sound designer (Barry Streifert) and composer (Sawyer Harrington-Verb), whose recordings of announcements, the Senator’s speeches, the crowd cheering, and appropriate music place the action all around us.

In a 2017 interview with BroadwayBox, Williams, an Emmy-nominated writer and TV producer, explains that he wrote Church and State as a response to the shootings at Virginia Tech, Tucson (where Gabby Giffords was shot) and Newtown.  “I’d had enough. I had to turn my rage and fear into action.  So I did what I know how to do.  I wrote a play.”  The play was first staged in Rochester, then Los Angeles, and in 2017 was seen in New York City at New World Stages.  Williams would eventually like to see it in “all the purple states.”

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The problem is that if Williams’ purpose is to encourage his audience to fight for sensible gun control measures, why embed his intention in a comedy?  He specifically states in his script that he wants actors to honor the comedy by not indulging in “darkness or tragedy” and by avoiding unscripted pauses that will slow down the pace.  Though comedy can be effective in a political play, here the comic tone undermines the message.  In an article entitled “Preaching to the Choir,” White, who regards the play as a “terrific comedy,” debates the relative merits of mixing theatre and politics, eventually citing the power of theatre to bring about change.  But it’s hard to take the play seriously when it so often relies on punch lines and physical humor, mostly attributable to Whitmore’s southern belle, drunk, oversexed, opinionated wife, who would prefer to see her husband have an affair than to lose his faith in God.  Much of their arguments center around religion and faith, rather than the need for sensible gun laws.  Silly wordplay like the disagreement over whether twitter should have a “the” before it or whether the winner of an election will have a “sticker” tape parade permeate the script.  Yet, by the end of the play, we are expected to applaud Mrs. Whitmore’s intelligence and at long last, to endorse a plea for gun control.

Given the difficulties of defining the tone of the piece, White respects the playwright’s wishes by emphasizing the comedy in the characterizations as well as the pacing, often coaxing his actors to talk over each other.  In the more serious moments, he and his design team, including some impressive lighting by Maeve Corcoran and Nick Nealon, achieve surprisingly powerful effects.  The actors, perfectly costumed by Barbara Neu-Berti, are well cast.  Paul Murphy as the Senator who tries to do the right thing, finds his footing especially when he isn’t being called on to play the comedy, while Dianne DeSantis as his outlandish wife enjoys the comic exaggerations of a character who cares only about “faith, family, and football.”  On the other hand, her moments alone with Elisa Verb as the campaign manager, when they are not required to face off against one another, are revelatory.  Verb admirably locates the truth in a woman whose background and beliefs are diametrically opposed to those of the candidate she is supporting by enabling us to understand the ambition that motivates her.  Sam Mikit does yeoman’s work playing a variety of characters in a variety of costumes.

By inviting the audience into the center of the action, rather than allowing us to be onlookers, White has given what might have been a pedestrian play new life and urgency.

CHURCH AND STATE runs from October 4—13 at Sand Lake Center for the Arts, Thursday through Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2:30.  For tickets call 518-674-2007.

Circle Theatre Players present CHURCH AND STATE by Jason Odell Williams.  Director:  Patrick White.  Cast:  Paul Murphy (Senator Charles Whitmore), Dianne DeSantis (Sara Whitmore), Elisa Verb (Alex Klein), Sam Mikit (Tom/Marshal).   Costume Design:  Barbara Neu-Berti; Lighting Design:  Maeve Corcoran, Nick Nealon; Sound Design:  Barry Streifert; Composer:  Sawyer Harrington-Verb; Stage Manager:  Melody Kruger.

Running Time:  90 minutes, no intermission, at Sand Lake Center for the Arts, 2880 NY-43, Averill Park, NY, from October 4, closing Oct. 13.

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