CHURCH & STATE
By Jason Odell Williams
Director – Jenna Burnett
Set Design – Natalie Rose Mabry
Projection Design – Philip Vilar
Prop/Set Decor Design – Lynn Lovett
Lighting Design – Jared Land
Sound Design – Jake Nice
Costume Design – Amanda Capshaw
Stage Manager – Mark Shum
Assistant Stage Manager – Rayven Harris
Charlie – Ashley Wood
Alex – Madeline Dockery-Fuhrmann
Sara – Shannon J. McGrann
Tom/Marshall/Reporter/Security Guy – Ryan Michael Friedman
Reviewed Performance: 1/29/2022
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Church & State, now playing at Stage West Theatre, may be a play about extreme politics. It could be about uncompromised, polarized views in politicians and voters. It might be about crisis management by political operatives. But really, Church & State is about difficult conversations. Like the ones we have a challenging time having with each other.
This play was written by award-winning Jason Odell Williams, called by some a modern Clifford Odets or even Eugene O’Neill. High praise! Out of a connection with the shooting at VCU a few years back came a deep dive into the psyche of how people process these events and the highly charged political machinations around them.
At the heart of this story is a US Senator and an elementary school shooting event. The subject is deadly serious, and it presses many buttons, but it’s written as a humorous look at the horrific events that seem now to fill our news stories. It is seriously hilarious, thankfully. We need it to address this plague and all the rhetoric that follows each event. We need to laugh through these conversations because the subjects we must discuss are so deadly.
Williams writes deftly about these things, without professing a viewpoint. Like all great writers, he presents the ideas and sides and some of their consequences, but lets the audience have their own difficult conversations.
In the hands of Director, Jenna Burnett, this cast of professionals manages these subjects with a sensitivity that allows us to see through our own political and spiritual lenses. With the timing of a fast-paced comedy, we can see Williams’ story unfold without being overcome by the morose or macabre. We simply watch four humans encounter, respond, and then analyze the events around them. Prepare to be shocked at times.
All the action takes place in a meeting room, and off in an off-stage auditorium, at North Carolina State (go Wolfpack) where Senator Charlie Whitmore is about to make a speech before his re-election campaign. He’s supported by his wife, Sara, a southern republican Christian woman with strong, unbendable beliefs, and his campaign manager, Alex Klein. But Charlie has had a crisis of conscience and isn’t sure what his message to the republican right-wing faithful should be. And, so, the story unwinds.
The set is a simple lounge/meeting room like you’ll see in any college. The colors are festive, reflecting a proud NC State tradition. Set Designer, Natalie Rose Mabry, and her décor designer, Lynn Lovett, put pieces of furniture anyone could feel comfortable in. Simple refreshments, couch and chair, small desk, it’s where you go to let off steam before a big speech. The back wall had an NC State logo but doubled as a screen for projections by Philip Vilar which played out during the story. Lighting Design by Jared Land made the set bright and easy to watch, except for a couple of shock effects. Jake Nice’s Sound Design mostly consisted of TV soundtracks of new reports and a couple of backstage effects. The setting had the atmosphere of a place for dicey conversations.
Amanda Capshaw added the kind of costume clothing we’d expect at an event like this, like decades of seeing politicians and their wives and guides on news coverage or in a host of political TV shows. It’s nothing flamboyant, just clothes you’d wear if you were fighting for your political life.
Ashley Wood played Charlie Whitmore with a well-timed, tempered portrayal of a strong republican from a political family going through a personal crisis after an event he saw up-close. The Senator had a strong Christian belief system and played it for many years, along with the standard approach to gun rights we’ve now seen for decades. But this confidence has been tested severely. He’s questioning everything, especially himself. Wood looked the part, like he could go out and run for office after this. But his great strength in this story is slowly revealing Charlie’s crumbling conscience as the wheels start to fall off. Wood’s choices of how this would play out for Charlie provided a wishy-washy feel, but from the character of a historical republican confidence. Charlie is at war with his own feelings and beliefs, while having to defend and explain his crisis to his even stronger wife, Sara, and his adamant political advisor, Alex. These are crisis-level conversations like many of us have with our spouses and important people in our lives. And Ashley Wood allows the indecision in the text to permeate his character choices. What we saw was a Hero’s Journey within himself.
Sara is a hardline, southern Christian woman in the strongest tradition. Proud of it and not afraid to proclaim that her way is the right way, she puts up an inquisitor wall for Charlie. Jesus, gun rights, keeping up the look of North Carolina conservativism, these are the important things for her, and ensuring her senator husband tows that line too. This character, created by Shannon J. McGrann, was delightful to watch. Her mannerisms were spot-on to the caricature many political wives present. When she gave Sara that outright befuddled look of someone, especially her man, questioning her beliefs, it was both cringeworthy, if you didn’t fully buy-in to her assumptions or, if you did, inspiring. I sat in front of a couple who obviously believed exactly what she was saying and punctuated that with “amens” as she preached. But Sara, like many of us, has a slightly darker side, one that’s not as sure in the deepest moments of truth. McGrann showed this too, both in allowing Sara to exhibit reluctant acceptance as she heard her husband’s deeply felt explanations, but also in a long-running drunk scene that completely revealed an un-faith we all sometimes have. Drunk scenes are notoriously hard to act. McGrann made this look believable and the hilarity that came out of it gave us a chance to process the hard truths in the storyline as it got more climactic. In the end, like so many good women I’ve known, beneath the veneer of staunch faith and certainty, there’s a basic need to be loved, to love their children and to want a better world for all.
Alex Klein was played by Madeline Dockery-Fuhrmann. Alex is the young political manager for the senator’s reelection campaign. Her job is to elect a man she can believe in, regardless of whether she buys-in to his beliefs. That’s hard for most of us, but it’s her career. She just happens to be a “New York Jew” who doesn’t look too closely at the underbelly of her man’s views. She certainly doesn’t approve of his wife’s antics and expectations. What’s important to her is that he follow the rules of winning elections – no mistakes, no bad publicity. Dockery-Fuhrmann presented Alex as an outwardly confident professional. She knows the election game! So, anything that strikes at that goal is dreadful. Her portrayal didn’t come across as caricature though, rather it seemed to be the way political consultants are trained. When Charlie starts opening possibilities of a small political mistake, and especially when Sara began spouting her religious responses to him, Dockery-Fuhrmann walked a tightrope between a calm, all-knowing professional and a roller-coaster flying off the rails. When all three of these strong characters unhinge, the scene gets chaotic and hilarious! But, like Charlie and Sara, Alex has a deeper layer that gets revealed through chaos. Sara and Alex find common ground, and this creates terrific opportunity. The difficult conversations between Sara and Alex are where some of the real magic was in this story and Dockery-Fuhrmann and McGrann deepened that arc by exploring the warmth between two women who respect each other, as characters and as actors.
The final character(s) could be viewed as a “bit part,” throwaway extras who just fill minor plot points. Ryan Michael Friedman did a piece of acting magic with his four parts. Tom is a slightly bumbling college kid assigned to help Charlie and Alex with campaign logistics, but at heart he’s really a young Wolfpack fan of NC State. As Marshall, he’s the enemy of the campaign, a social blogger of “the Twitter.” As Reporter he’s the inquisitor trying to get an answer so he can get an exclusive. And as Security Guy he’s the caricature of every secret service agent we ever saw in political shows or TV news. Friedman had to juggle these quick-change parts and present vastly different personalities in each. And he did this smoothly. But his role in telling the story was to interject moments of levity into the difficult conversations so we could watch those play out. That was a tribute to brilliant writing, subtle direction to find the tiny moments, and Friedman’s commitment to the roles. Those moments were not funny to him. He made this story easier to watch. In the end, he did something even more important – almost Shakespearean. He provided the true message and moral of this story. And it was a fabulous moment!
I loved this story and these characters. The production design, direction and acting were complete gems. I wish I could say more about it, but it needs to unfold in front of an audience to really work. I want you to see this show. It’s well worth the drive and risky time in a real theater with an audience and a live performance. (Get there early for dinner. The food and service can’t be beat!)
If I had to sum the message of the story it might be that we all publicly show our strong side but all of us have a weak side too. Our views come from deep inside, and down there we’re not always sure of everything we preach. We all have a challenging time talking about these things, so we don’t. But we also all have a common ground. Being loved, heard, and respected is the most important thing in the end. But of course, that’s my interpretation. What is yours?
Director Burnett wrote in her Director’s Notes the real message. “Church & State approaches … touchy subjects thoughtfully with empathy, grace, and a sense of humor. It allows the characters to question, consider, and just not know.” You need to see this – IMHO.
CHURCH & STATE
Jerry Russell Theatre
821 W Vickery Blvd
Fort Worth, Texas 76104
Plays through February 20th
Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 3pm
Tickets are $40-45
NOTE: All shows are “Masks Required.” Sundays are “Vaccination Mandatory.” See website for details.
Food service is available 90 minutes prior to performances (reservations are advised).
For information and tickets, visit www.stagewest.org or call (817) 784-9378 (STG-WEST).