I remember that in my high school Law and Justice class, my teacher asked a simple question, “How many of you would vote for an atheist presidential nominee?” When I looked around the classroom, I found that there were only two hands were raised with mine, which ultimately was not that surprising.
Suzanne Bradbeer, in her play The God Game, now being presented by Sonorous Road Productions, echoes that question: “Can a nonreligious candidate prosper in a U.S. election?” Even more incredulously, “Is it possible for a nonreligious Republican serve as a viable running mate?”
According to a report by Pew Research, “Currently, 27% of Americans say there has been too much discussion of religious faith and prayer by political leaders, while 40% say there has been too little religious discussion.” The same study found that 53% of Republicans find that there has been too little religious talk, while just 15% of Republicans think there is too much religious discussion.
When it comes to elections, the public seems to like having candidates with some sort of faith. Sonorous Road’s regional premiere of The God Game, performed in the intimacy of a black-box theater, brings this discussion from the political arena into a living room. Although the characters and audience are enclosed in the four walls of a Virginia home, the issue still works its way in.
Suzanne Bradbeer’s play, which runs around 110 minutes, feels like it lasts only moments. Watching it, I felt the like characters felt the toll of time more than I did. June Guralnick’s masterful directing helps bring the struggle of state versus religion to the forefront. Each character — whether it’s David Hudson’s Tom, Courtney Christison’s Lisa, or Beau Clark’s Matt — is brings his or her own stake to the fight.
I couldn’t help but notice how the triangle of the ensemble fought. Throughout the play, they stretch and invert the triangle for dominance — whether biblical text was sacred, whether quotes from the Bible could be used as a tool, and whether religion should matter at all.
Sometimes, points of the triangle even intersect — for me, the most electrifying moment of the play is when Christison and Clark are chest to chest, shouting lines almost incoherently over each other, building in rage until Hudson breaks them apart with rage of his own. All the while, the specter of omnipresent Jay, played by Kyle Mears, looms, watching as they all fight for what they think is right, even invoking him. This give and take of actors, and all the electricity keeping the audience watching what transpires in this living room, is a tribute to June Guralnick’s direction.
In terms of acting, the ensemble work of David Hudson, Courtney Christison, and Beau Clark is absolutely amazing. Whether they’re shouting, negotiating, shutting each other down, or weeping, it feels less like a performance and more like voyeurism. In particular, Christison’s performance is magnetic. In a male-dominated play, she is the source of power.
In addition, Kyle Mears — though without lines — brought with him power and pain to every scene that he witnessed. Even if he wasn’t onstage, it felt like he was watching. My only critique is that I don’t know why it was necessary to cast Jay at all, when set dressings and archival video make his presence clear.
Performances aside, more than anything I enjoyed how set, lights, sound, and video created the world of the play. Even before I entered the space, I took notice of June Guralnick’s sound design.
As I waited for the house to open, a mix of religious and patriotic songs boomed through the curtains. As the stage sat bare, bathed in red and blue lights, casting purples over the pale blue walls and historical maps of Virginia, it seemed to prime us for the show to come. Spirituals mixing with “God Bless America’s” set us up for the battle that we were about to see — religion vs. politics. Despite Guralnick’s strong house music, I found that some sound cues, such as phone calls and other alerts, sounded artificial due to their loud volume.
As I walked into the space, I found myself thinking, “Did Miyuki Su design this?” — and my program confirmed it. Su and Jeffrey Nugent thoroughly transformed the Sonorous Road Theatre space into the living room of Tom and Lisa’s Virginia home.
In addition to Su’s always meticulously realistic set painting and the pitch-perfect set dressing, I loved seeing a flat-screen television on every wall. The motif of all of these changing televisions, sometimes static and sometimes with video, is perfect for a play about politicians. Even in the privacy of Lisa and Tom’s home, the television — the ultimate personification of the media — was always watching and waiting.
Neill Prewitt’s work in creating the projections and films, with even some mini-documentaries about religion in elections, pairs perfectly with Suzanne Bradbeer’s script. I was particularly fascinated with the differences between what was shown on the TVs and what was projected on the walls. While the map of Virginia, opinions about religion in elections, and even Mitch McConnell live in the TV’s, memories of church and of Jay, were projected on the walls and doorways. I still haven’t worked out what the difference was; but I loved how each of the projected videos and images informed the story. If there is any critique, I would love the differences between the purposes of these projections clearer.
I also loved how Liz Grimes Droessler’s lighting design, in particular, lived in two tones: red and blue. Although it seemed like a reference to our two political parties, it colored the story so much more. Blue always seemed to be the default.
Blue was Tom’s world — when everything seemed cut and dry, without shades of nuance, it was blue. Every instance of red seemed to come from Lisa. Whether a reminder of Jay or talking about religion — it seemed to come from Courtney Christison’s passion, which I loved.
The detail of blue-and-white light coming from the window was a wonderful effect. The use of these colors also saturated and desaturated the space, depending on the height of the drama. This color commentary made the story that much more vivid and is, perhaps, my favorite technical element to track.
Overall, whatever your opinions of the place of religion and politics are, this play is a must see. Not only is the production as a whole worth the price of entry, but the subject matter will give you a whole new look at the place of God in every election cycle. Ultimately, playwright Suzanne Bradbeer and the whole team behind Sonorous Road’s production show that even a living room doesn’t have to be an echo chamber.
SECOND OPINION: Feb. 6th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article131061994.html; Feb. 4th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Alan R. Hall: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=8337; and Feb. 1st Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/the-god-game/Event?oid=5101247. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Feb. 5th Triangle Review review by Pamela Vesper and Kurt Benrud, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2017/02/suzanne-bradbeers-the-god-game-is-aptly-named-brilliantly-written-and-expertly-performed/.)
Sonorous Road Productions presents THE GOD GAME at 8 p.m. Feb. 10 and 11, 3 p.m. Feb. 12, 8 p.m. Feb. 13 (Industry Night), 8 p.m. Feb. 16-18, and 3 p.m. Feb. 19 at Sonorous Road Theatre, 209 Oberlin Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27605.
TICKETS: $18 ($15 students and seniors).
BOX OFFICE: 919-803-3798 or https://sonorousroadtheatre.com/get-tickets.
VIDEO PREVIEW: https://vimeo.com/201031033.
June Guralnick (director): http://www.juneguralnick.com/June.htm (official website), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm3302381/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/june.guralnick (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/guralnick (Twitter page).
Katy Koop is a writer, comedic actor, and stage manager based in Cary, NC. As a freelance writer, her work has been published by Later, Femsplain, and Hello Giggles. When she’s not writing or involved in a local production, she’s tweeting under the handle @katykooped. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.