Politics and religion. These two things go hand in hand. Our country believes in the separation between church and state, but the reality is that politicians must embrace their party platform in order to get and stay elected. Conservative politicians are seen as God-fearing, gun-rights advocates, whereas liberals tend to advocate setting limitations on the right to bear arms.
In the North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre’s current production of Jason Odell Williams’ Church & State, directed by Yvonne Belsenti Anderson, Republican U.S. Senator Charles Whitmore (played by Brian Yandle) is running for reelection when a gunman bursts into a Raleigh, NC school and kills innocent children. After seeing his friend’s children buried, Senator Whitmore makes an offhand comment to a reporter that, perhaps, prayer is not what is needed to solve the gun problem.
Indeed, the shooting leads Whitmore to question his faith and what the country needs regarding gun control. He starts wondering if he should change his position on gun rights, speak his truth and, perhaps, actually make a change in the world. However, if he risks doing to, he risks losing his base supporters and, perhaps, risks losing the election.
Of course, Whitmore’s pious wife Sara (Melanie Simmons) is shaken when her husband starts talking about losing his faith in God. So is his campaign manager, Alex (Liz Webb). They both feel that with victory within his grasp; and on the eve of an important speech to his base, Whitmore should stick to the party line and deliver his speech “with confidence, humility, and no specifics” — the proper way to deliver a political speech, according to Alex.
We see Whitmore question it all. He compares religion to bottled water — all the same on the inside, with different labels on the outside, each selling their brand as better. Of course, Whitmore’s wife is aghast, wondering when he lost his faith in God and wanting to retain her place as a congressional wife.
Will Whitmore risk it all and speak his mind about his crisis of faith? Will he advocate gun control?
The play deals with the speech that Whitmore ultimately gives, and its effect on him, his supporters, and the country. The dialogue is well-timed. When necessary, every word is squeezed into a small space, with the characters at times talking over each other, giving the dialog an authentic feel.
The characters’ problems are intentional, well-rehearsed, and very natural under the circumstances. Melanie Simmons shines as a ditsy, shiny politician’s wife, and Liz Webb is all business and brusqueness as Whitmore’s campaign manager. They are great counterpoints for each other.
For his part, Brian Yandle makes a great politician. We will leave it to you whether that is a compliment or not!
The fourth member of the cast, Christian O’Neal, plays multiple roles. He provides comic relief as serious scenes unfold all around him.
The set by Thomas Mauney is a perfect rendition of a “green room” at N.C. State University’s Stewart Theatre, complete with authentic looking cinder-block walls, exterior conduit pipes, sturdy furniture, and fan photo wall hanging. The set designer really did his homework. There were also excellent choices in lighting — especially for final scenes.
This play’s subject is a timely one. With shooting after shooting happening in America, and with other countries changing their gun laws within weeks of their own tragedies, Americans need to find a way to tackle gun violence in America.
Just as the Whitmores ultimately find understanding and enlightenment by tackling their differences in this show, this is a dialog we must have with one another.
SECOND OPINION: April 28th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Alan R. Hall: https://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=9400; and April 20th Durham, NC Herald-Sun mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://indyweek.com/events/church-and-state/.
North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre presents CHURCH & STATE at 3 p.m. April 28, 8 p.m. May 3 and 4, 3 p.m. May 5, 8 p.m. May 10 and 11, and 3 p.m. May 12 at 7713-51 Lead Mine Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27615, in the Food Lion Shopping Center.
BOX OFFICE: 919-866-0228, firstname.lastname@example.org, or https://nract.secure.force.com/ticket/#details_a0S1H00000SKL2FUAX.
Church & State (2017 Off-Broadway political comedy): (official website), https://jasonodellwilliams.wixsite.com/jowinnyc/work (JasonOdellWilliams.com), https://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=5685 (Dramatists Play Service. Inc.), and http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/6309 (Internet Off-Broadway Database).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Jason Odell Williams (Manhattan playwright): http://www.jasonodellwilliams.com/ (official website), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/43674 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1790790/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jason_Williams_(actor) (Wikipedia).
Yvonne Belsenti Anderson (Raleigh, NC director): https://www.facebook.com/yvonne.b.anderson (Facebook page).
Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.