It would be nice to think that a rational person, when faced with fact-based evidence contradicting what he or she believes to be true, would admit their error and change their mind. But, as anyone who’s ever gotten in an argument online can tell you, that isn’t the case. That’s what spurred playwright Jason Odell Williams to write Church & State, and what a powerful statement this play makes about America.
Senator Charles Whitmore (Graham Rowat) is up for reelection in North Carolina; he’s a Christian Conservative who believes in guns, God and football, and his constituents – and his wife, Sara (Judy Jerome) – love him for it. Right before the reelection, there’s a shooting in his sons’ elementary school with over two dozen casualties, and Whitmore begins to doubt – not only the absolute power of the oh-so-holy Second Amendment, but the existence of God himself, because how could God allow things like this to keep happening? He’s veering wildly off the script his campaign manager Alex (Kiera Naughton) has had carefully crafted for him and going against everything he and his wife believe in – but he can’t find it in himself to stand in front of the people who rely on him and lie.
This show is stunning. The way Williams has constructed it provides the most dramatic tension and such surprises – as many shows as I see, I’m not often surprised, but this one managed to utterly shock me. It’s so timely and so heartbreaking – if you can sit and listen to a description of an elementary school post-shooting and not be moved to tears, I don’t think I want to know you – but it’s also quite funny and human, and whether it will manage to change some minds … well, there’s no telling about that, of course, but kudos to the playwright for using his platform so beautifully to at least try, to bring attention to something so broken in our society.
Rowat’s performance as Whitmore is fantastic; to see the man’s mind change in front of you, to see what it takes to make that change occur, is beautiful writing, directing (by Charlotte Cohn, who does pitch-perfect work with every aspect of the show) and acting. Jerome plays the perfect Southern wife, but as you get to know her, you see what she has inside, and the work she’s done to bring this woman to life is just wonderful. The relationship between Whitmore and his wife is so realistic and so refreshingly honest.
I want everyone to make seeing this show a priority; it’s not often something this well-written and this timely comes to the stage, let alone the area. This is something everyone needs to experience because it is what we are experiencing, every day, and you owe it to yourself as a member of society to watch, digest and discuss with others. This is theater with purpose, and my gratitude to the company for bringing it to us.
“Church & State;” Berkshire Theatre Group, 6 East St., Stockbridge, MA; through June 30; $56; Run time: 1 hour and 15 minutes; 413-997-4444; http://www.berkshiretheatregroup.org/