By Lauren Van Hemert
Over the weekend, worshippers at a synagogue in Poway, California became the latest victims of an arsenal of attacks on so-called soft targets, schools, malls, and faith-based venues. President Trump tweeted his condolences followed by a tweet in support of the National Rifle Association. While messages of support for Poway’s community prevailed, it seems that once again any kind of proactive conversation about guns in this country may falter in the wake of yet another tragedy. And that’s one of the reasons why the North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre (NRACT) current production of Jason Odell Williams’ Church & State, which curiously also opened this weekend, is so compelling.
The plot is timely. Senator Charles Whitmore is just three days from being re-elected. After a gunman attacks his children’s school in Raleigh, he tells a reporter that his faith in God has been questioned. The real question now is how will this revelation affect his God-fearing, gun-loving base? Will his Jewish campaign manager from New York be able to do damage control? And can his devout wife ever forgive him?
Brian Yandle’s portrayal of Senator Whitmore is righteous and persuasive, though his powers of persuasion as a politician manifest more towards the end of the play than in the beginning. Liz Webb also delivers a fine performance as Whitmore’s campaign manager, but her character as written is somewhat problematic because here Williams succumbs to stereotype. Aside from some pithy one-liners, there’s no real depth to this character at all. The real tension occurs between Senator Whitmore and his pious wife Sara, played by the scene-stealing Melanie Simmons. Simmons is commanding and captivating from start to finish. Her comic timing is on point, while her flair for the dramatic is riveting, in the best possible way.
Director Yvonne Anderson keeps things moving at a fast yet controlled pace. And the use of voiceovers and JaJuan Cofield’s effective sound design gives the play a realness that comes to bear in a stirring climactic moment that will leave you breathless.
But the thing that transcends the performances and this production is the thought-provoking subject matter. Williams’ resounding courage of conviction and impassioned plea for action is soul-stirring. It’s a conversation starter for sure and a piece that regardless of which side of the political aisle you lean towards, will challenge even the most faithful to question core values and beliefs.
Church & State runs through May 12th at North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre. For more information visit: http://www.nract.org/.
Click here to listen to Lauren Van Hemert’s interview with Jason Odell Williams, the playwright of Church & State, on the RDU on Stage podcast (Episode 15).