(l-r) Beth Winslow, Matthew Combs, Esther Winter, Peter Doyle, David Kramer [Photo: Ralph Meranto] JCC’s CenterStage, 10/17/16
In July at the JCC’s CenterStage — just as the political season was heating up — we enjoyed the political musical/satire, Blood, Bloody, Andrew Jackson. While set in the 19th century Age of Jackson, as deftly adapted and performed, the play bristled with timeliness with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton (and a little Bernie) lurking in the background.
With the election around the corner, CenterStage artistic director Ralph Meranto serves up another politically themed play, Church and State. As described by Ralph in “Art Beat”:
The comedic-drama centers on a conservative Christian U.S. senator who publicly admits that a school shooting in his district has caused him to not only soften his stance on gun control, but also question his belief in God and the relevance of prayer.
Hearing these statements from a sitting Republican senator initiates a firestorm of media attention as his campaign manager and devoutly Christian wife struggle to limit the political damage.
Cynicism may mark the last toxic week of any presidential election. By contrast, playwright Jason Odell Williams has given us a decidedly uncynical and very human portrait of the politician and the politician’s spouse.
Decent and principled, Senator Charles “Charlie” Whitmore (Peter Doyle) is no machiavellian. Folksy and gregarious, Charlie exudes the natural charm of a southern FDR. His unscripted thumbs up at the end of his campaign ads or the relish he takes in photo ops with a constituent in a Tar Heel’s jersey feel entirely authentic.
The Senator’s wife, Sara, (Beth Winslow) is no second fiddle in the marriage. Well-educated and opinionated (but not inflexible), Sara enjoys the life of a senator’s wife. But, like Charlie, she would not compromise her deepest beliefs to win an election.
The affectionate couple generate a warm humor that makes the play — in Ralph’s term — a comedic drama. Both have the politician’s gift for deflection or diversion. The digressions on the correct grammatical construction of twitter and blog are hysterical. While devout and scripture citing, Sara has a saucy side, beckoning Charlie to smooch her while boasting that the stolen glances of a younger male aide prove she still has the goods. For his part, Charlie is pleased to tell Sara, with a smile, she’s just about all the woman he can handle.
But if the play delights us, it also challenges us with themes of violence, death and, most profoundly, faith in a divine purpose. At closure, Williams’ subtlety crafted script leaves believers and non-believers, Democrats and Republicans seeing religion and politics a little differently.
Finally, the play gives us no villains to point a self-righteous finger. After seeing Church and State, my mother — who would never vote for a conservative Republican in real life — said she could imagine voting for Senator Charlie Whitmore, R-North Carolina.
It’s no surprise that JCC CenterStage gave us another complex and thought provocating play. For decades, CenterStage has had a loyal and theater-savvy following who expect challenging drama.
For example, in 1982, CenterStage ambitiously performed Letter’s Home, a dramatized version of Sylvia Plaths’s hauntingly beautiful poems and letters. In 1985, director Marcy Gamzon — then a University of Rochester PhD candidate in English and now an English teacher at SOTA — brought feminism center stage with ‘Night Mother. In 1986, CenterStage sensitively produced Children of a Lesser God. In 1987, CenterStage tackled Athol Fugard’s searing exploration of South African apartheid, Lessons From Aloes. That 1987 production attracted renowned Rochester actor Otis Young.
Since becoming artistic director in 1998, Ralph continued the CenterStage tradition of socially or politically charged theater. In 1998, Ralph directed the demanding and historically-layered Taking Sides. The CenterStage audience had to decide if a German composer who made music for the Nazi elite can ever be “excused.” In 2008, in My Mother’s Lesbian Wiccan Wedding, CenterStagers wrestled with the complexities of same-sex marriage. In 2010, Ralph produced Lebensraum, worrying whether the complex play requiring three actors to play 80 characters would hold audience attention. No worries, however. According to the D & C, CenterStager’s were fully captivated, In 2014, CenterStage revisited Larry Kramer’s controversial drama about AIDS, Normal Heart.
Before the performance, I met with Ralph and the cast members. Ralph preaches and practices accessibility. He’s always happy to converse about all things theater.Ralph was on his way to an interview with Evan Dawson of WXXI’s Connections. In the interview (screenplay writer Jason Odell Williams was there also), Ralph discussed how about two years ago, the play had originated as a “well crafted facebook rant” Jason had sent him.
The rant was an outline for a screenplay in which Ralph saw much promise. After many iterations and staged readings, the play developed into a recognized New Play. Now, Church and State is making its World Premiere (following a co-World Premiere in Los Angeles). See “Art Beat” and a WROC-TV interview with Ralph.
To me, Ralph mentioned that, in order to enhance authenticity, a woman who was a staff member for former First Lady Laura Bush was consulted. The woman offered insights into how spouses interact during an election campaign. After the play, I thought whether the character Sara Whitmore was modeled after a prominent real First Lady. Maybe a trace of Barbara Bush, Michelle Obama or Hillary Clinton. Maybe — as Sara is also a southern conservative – a touch of Laura Bush. I could see Laura given W. a lecture in private. But Williams evades presenting Sara as a caricature or stereotype.
I also spoke individually with the four cast members. We took a group photo of myself preparing as an understudy just in case someone broke a leg and my thespian talents were needed (talents that included being asked in the middle school chorus to please just mouth my lines without audible articulation). I asked each to offer one specific moments or acting technique I could especially look for during the live show.
After showing me his range of possible southern accents (North Carolinian can sound downright Yankee to a rural Mississippian), Peter Doyle (Senator Whitmore) said he is naturally a fast or fidgety person. Peter said watch to see if he slows down his body and speech.
Peter also mentioned that politically he is a progressive liberal, hence somewhat the opposite of Whitmore. Nonetheless, Peter’s primary goal is to be as true to Whitmore as possible. I asked how his bias could come through. Peter acted part of one scene, effectively showing how one strident gesture could change the entire tone of the scene and character.
Esther Winter (Alex Klein, Whitmore’s black Jewish campaign manager) said look to see how her body language changes as alliances subtly shift over the course of the play.
Matthew Combs (Tom, a Campaign Assistant/Marshall, a blogger/Security Guard) was playing a character who felt uncomfortable around the others. To prepare, Matthew observed how people entered a roomful of strangers. At a party, he noticed whether a new guest would open the refrigerator (a sign of ease) or look at the refrigerator tentatively or nervously.
Beth Winslow (Sara Whitmore) had a difficult task. In one scene, she had to appear inebriated. Beth said other actors agreed that playing drunk can be easily over or under done.
During the performance, I sat next to Shyla McDermott. Shyla is a student at Eastern Michigan University, now on a year long Music Therapy Internship at the Hochstein School of Music.
Afterwards, we agreed Peter was a little jittery but quickly slowed down to a southern pace. We noticed Peter avoided any forceful hand gestures in the scene mentioned.
We both thought Matthew effectively portrayed discomfort. His character’s unease was well contrasted when he later played a self-assured blogger.
We saw how Esther positioned her legs on a couch — keeping them steady and prominent — to demonstrate new found affinity in a relationship.
We thought Beth handled tipsiness well. Shlya said Beth could have been a tad more out of control, but understood why she wanted to be relatively restrained.
Shlya and I concurred we had seen a bravura ensemble performance, confirmed by the audience’s standing ovation.
After the play, I stayed for the Talk Back (as also for Blood, Bloody, Andrew Jackson) As seen in her review at end, the City‘s Leah Stacey also stayed for the Talk Back.
As usual, the audience asked perceptive questions on acting technique and how the play might have been received before the elections and how it might be perceived once the elections are over. One woman described how her experience of the play altered when she went to the bathroom and found the stage door locked upon her return, adding a new wrinkle to our thinking. One gentleman said the audience itself could be seen as a fifth character in the play.
Ralph agreed. Especially so since the man was one of the loyal and savvy CenterStagers who have been charmed and challenged at the JCC’s Hart Theater for decades.
POSTCSCRIPT: On a sad note, one of those loyal and savvy theater lovers, Janet Patlow. passed away recently. In the playbill is Janet’s final Center Stage reflection.
ON OTHER LOCAL THEATER: