In recent months, the Raleigh area has been graced by the presence of several new (or at least new to the states) or rarely performed shows, including “A Steady Rain” at North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre, “Many Moons” at Common Ground Theatre, and “The Innocents,” also at Common Ground Theatre. These shows have proven to be real treats, nice breaks from the reliable regimen of Shakespeare and big-name musicals that regularly makes its way throughout the area. The latest brand new play in the line-up is Terry Milner’s “The Jesus Fund,” directed by Beth Gardiner and onstage now at Burning Coal Theatre.
Compared to the other recent offerings mentioned, “The Jesus Fund” is somewhat lacking, but in and of itself, it’s a decent play, particularly for a new playwright. The story focuses on an off-the-wall theological seminary in New York City. At this seminary, people from all kinds of religious backgrounds, people who many would describe as more “atheistic” than “theistic” in terms of the nitty-gritty of their unique beliefs, come together to talk religion—to argue, to become friends with the most unlikely of people, and to find themselves.
At the head of the school is Dr. Aubrey Lothrop (Tom McCleister), a now very old man with a kind heart and the best intentions of his students (present and former) always foremost in his mind. He spends his time with past student and now-professor, Dr. Michael Brand (Gregor McElvogue) and a host of other colorful characters, including the soon-to-be-ordained Ilana Shelby (Carly Prentis Jones), Muslim Jamil Rana (Rajeev Rajendran), and Jewish Jonathan Lewis (Ian Finely). The surprisingly happy and tight-knit little group gets thrown through a loop, however, when Dr. David Padgett (David Henderson), a Billy-Graham style minister and a former alumnus of the seminary, arrives on the scene.
Dr. Padgett has come under the guise of speaking at an event, but his actual plan is to “bail out” (read acquire) the seminary, which is in serious debt. All of the talk of buy-outs and funding, however, takes a back seat to the true heart of the play—the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle musings on religion, on the way our beliefs affect our relationships—both with others and with ourselves, and on whether true faith is accepting blindly or finding a way to believe after all possible questions have been asked, and many have been left unanswered.
Though the play is incredibly dense—some would even say overly wordy—the brightly painted characters, each brought effectively to life by its portrayer, make the drawn-out moments survivable. Henderson is particularly good and entirely believable as the somewhat swarmy Dr. Padgett, and McElvogue brings a dry humor and wit to his role as Dr. Brand. Jones infuses warm energy into Ilana, and the remaining actors follow suit. However, even for such a gifted cast, the density of the script led to many stumbles and fumbles at Friday’s performance.
Perhaps a bit overly ambitious in its scope, “The Jesus Fund” is missing something. Many of the elements of a good play are there, including believable characters and a promising, somewhat suspenseful storyline, but the story, in spite of itself, lacks heart, much in the same way it accuses many a mainstream religion of doing.