Comments, criticisms, or (one can hope) compliments are more than welcome! Please let me know what you think, tell me I'm crazy (I suspect this) or what you'd like to hear about. Comments are screened before publication, so if you want to share something with me only, just put that in the comment and I'll keep it to myself.


Sunday, July 24, 2016

God, Gays & Guns All Collide in a New Play

St. Mary Magdalene - First Witness to the Resurrection

My father's observation of Edward Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf was that the viewer squirms in hir seat, feeling as if s/he's witnessing a private conversation of which s/he should not be part. And that is precisely the point.  Two couples embark on a visit having no idea what intimate secrets are to be revealed, and leave the encounter permanently changed.

By contrast, the characters in Dewey Moss's new play The Crusade of Connor Stephens gather all knowing, by varying degrees, what to expect from one another.  Two families joined by the common tragedy of a child's murder are connected only by the parents, a same-gender couple in whose home the story unfolds. They come from different towns and vastly different world-views, a fact that becomes wrenchingly clear as each character in turn unpacks the baggage that the sudden loss of a little girl has forced into the light.  When the play was selected as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival, the mass shooting at a gay bar in Orlando had not yet occurred, but that tragedy, coupled with the rhetoric coming from the presidential campaign, served only to make it more timely, and all performances of the limited run were sold out.

As the curtain rises, Jim Jr., broodingly portrayed by Ben Curtis (yes, the Dell spokesman... he's done quite a bit since then including starring opposite Richard Chamberlain in We Are the Hartmans), wants to drown his sorrows alone. His husband Kris (James Padric) is asleep, numbed physically and emotionally by medication; he was also struck by a bullet trying to save his daughter Tess. Kris's sister Kimmie (Julie Campbell) fusses over preparations for any post-funeral callers.  Her husband Bobby (Jacques Mitchell) arrives with Jim's mother Marianne (Katherine Leask) and grandmother Vivi'n (Kathleen Huber) in tow; the latter in a wheelchair.  Marianne reveals news Jim wasn't hoping for: his father "Big Jim" (James Kiberd) also plans to come by.

Big Jim would be a caricature of the blowhard southern evangelical preacher you love to hate if it wasn't so rapidly clear how thin a veneer his confident persona really is. Before he even arrives, his wife--ignoring whatever needs her grieving son and his husband might have--wants special tea made for him.  When he finally does bluster in, he immediately tries to establish control of everybody, ordering his mother to return to her wheelchair for no other reason than because that's what he wants. Moss quickly establishes the familiar pattern of an abuser; Big Jim manages to put down everybody in the room and anchor himself as the superior man of God.

Focusing on the handsome and athletic Bobby, the preacher wants badly to impress this newcomer with his ever-expanding church campus and involve him in it somehow. In doing so, he reveals his disappointment in Jim Jr. right in front of him with no regard for his feelings, causing everybody else to wince, but we can tell by the weary near-lack of reaction that his son is quite aware of his father's disdain.

Kris emerges, wild-eyed and disoriented. Who are these people in my house?  Jim and Kimmy hurry to settle him and it becomes clear that his fragile state buys him no free pass from his husband's family.  As the the story unfolds we learn that both Big Jim and Marianne have long blamed Kris for their son's same-gender attraction.
Jim Jr. (BEN CURTIS) comforts his husband Chris (JAMES PADRIC)
PHOTO CREDIT: Dewey Moss.  Used with permission.

As they prepare to leave for the funeral, Dean, an associate from Big Jim's church, arrives visibly distraught and detains the pastor with some urgent news. He received a letter sent by the killer Connor Stephens, prior to the murder and his own death (at his own hand?). Connor was a member of the church, a troubled youth who had been "saved" along with his mother by the charity of the organization.  In the letter he makes his motive for the killing clear, and--as the first act ends--the preacher is left alone to contemplate his own role in his son's daughter's death.

During the intermission, my cynical mind went back to how Big Jim tried to court Bobby, and I thought of the countless stories of vulnerable young men taken in and exploited by those they should have been able to trust. Cynical me wondered if we were going to learn there was something unseemly going on between Connor and either Dean or Big Jim himself. As the action resumes after the funeral, the whole story is painfully revealed as each character engages in some soul-baring.  Deep-seated resentments come to light, and alliances shift at least somewhat... the grip Big Jim has on his his family may be weakened if not failing completely.  After Jim Jr. learns Connor's motive (sorry, no spoilers. I'm hoping this play "has legs" and you get a chance to see it!), his father, fearing he'll be ruined if the truth gets out, tries to enlist everybody in downplaying the matter in the hope the story will slip from public attention.  Kris and his family are incensed, and we hope that Big Jim is going to get the take-down he so desperately deserves. Bobby or Jim, Jr. could slug him, his wife or mother could verbally eviscerate him, but ultimately he's already done the worst damage to himself.
Big Jim (JAMES KIBERD) verbally spars with Bobby (JACQUES MITCHELL)
PHOTO CREDIT: Dewey Moss. Used with permission.

The real hero of the story ends up being Grandma Vivi'n.  Without raising her voice, she orchestrates conversations that need to happen to keep the painful revelations coming.  She challenges her daughter-in-law to stand up to her husband and finally be a mother to her son after failing him for so long. And--when the time is right--she shares a long-secret truth that nobody is prepared to hear.

Grandma Vivi'n (KATHLEEN HUBER)
PHOTO CREDIT: Dewey Moss. Used with permission.

The play was staged as the Workshop Theater, a tiny space.  It deserves more eyes, particularly as the topic could not be more relevant during this troubled summer.  However, being so close to the players, close enough to see them twitch at one another's words, brings that uncomfortable intimacy that might be lost in too large a house. Curtis's Jim Jr. in particular, speaks very little but says so much with grimace and gesture that--for me, anyway--I felt like I knew him intimately and understood his pain.

You wish you weren't so close at times, right in the room hearing the things these people have been carrying around for so long, but we need to be there. Lost behind the aggregate statistic and sensational headlines, every gun-related incident wounds many more victims than the ones the bullets actually hit. Every sweeping condemnation flung from a pulpit causes collateral damage to people who never graced the pews. The day we stop seeing those affected as people like us, worthy of our sympathetic tears, is the day all hope is lost.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much letting me know about this play. My husband Ernest and I have booked to attend a new production of it at the Jerry Orbach Theater http://www.thecrusadeofconnorstephens.com/

    Ben and I both went to the same prep school in Chattanooga, as did Pat Robertson; but Pat and I are octogenarians. This play marks how hard the passage was for all of us.

    My Quaker ancestors would say to me, "This play speaks to your condition."

    Thomas Hardy said, "If a way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst." Dewey Moss has found The Way.