This weekend, JCC CenterStage opened its 40th season doing what Artistic Director Ralph Meranto does best: producing a new national work, with local actors, for local audiences. Meranto partnered with Emmy-nominated playwright Jason Odell Williams to develop "Church and State" nearly two years ago. The collaboration was based on the success of the duo's last project, the hit Jewish holiday show "Handle with Care" (which was also developed in partnership with CenterStage in 2012 and later went on to play more than 100 performances Off-Broadway).
In a talkback after Sunday's matinee, Meranto said that it was the January 2011 shooting of US Representative Gabby Giffords and 18 others in Tucson, Arizona, that initiated the idea for "Church and State." The play begins just after a school shooting has taken place in Raleigh, North Carolina, the hometown of Charles Whitmore, a conservative Christian senator. After the funeral for the victims, Whitmore -- whose current campaign song is "Jesus is My Running Mate" -- makes several newsworthy comments about guns and God to a blogger.
"How could I believe in a God who would let this happen," he yells. The blogger records the interview, and when the story hits Twitter that afternoon, campaign manager Alex Klein and Whitmore's wife, Sara, attempt to reason with the senator before his next public speech. With an election just days away, this could be the end of his career.
"Church and State" only calls for four characters:Senator Charles "Charlie" Whitmore (Peter Doyle), his Christian wife, Sara Whitmore (Beth Winslow), his Jewish campaign manager, Alex Klein (Esther Winter), and an ensemble role comprising campaign assistant Tom, blogger Marshall, and a security guard (Matthew Combs). There's always the risk of a weak link when a theater chooses a show with a small cast, but fortunately that doesn't happen in this production.
The first several minutes of the show felt a little stiff, but the actors quickly settled into a natural dialogue with one another. Doyle and Winslow used soft Southern accents throughout the show, which thankfully remained consistent rather than distracting.
Doyle, who has more than 40 years of acting experience, sets the tone of the show with his energy and commitment to the portrayal of Whitmore. It's hard not to believe that Doyle was typecast (he said during the talkback that he's the very opposite of Whitmore), because he's so convincing in his speeches and struggle throughout. As his wife, Winslow (who's a trained improv artist) strikes a balance between devout Southern trophy wife and wise better half. Her "soft pretzel" scene is easily one of the funniest in the show.
Esther Winter, as the uptight, sarcastic Alex Klein, is the right amount of salty to the Whitmores' sweet (tea), and portrays a fully three-dimensional character as the ambitious campaign manager who has a softer side. Recent Nazareth College graduate Matthew Combs juggles several smaller roles and manages to distinguish between the naive, eager campaign assistant Tom and the fame-hungry, inquisitive blogger Marshall. Overall, the ensemble gives the kind of shining performance that warranted Sunday's standing ovation.
The central focus of the set -- also designed by Meranto -- is a large artistic interpretation of the United States map suspended from the ceiling. Otherwise, each scene takes place in simple "green rooms" of college and convention center auditoriums, consisting of a few metal chairs, a worn leather couch, and a table holding water bottles, sweet tea, and other refreshments. Off to one side of the stage is a flag and a backdrop emblazoned over and over with the candidate's name. A large screen is also lowered in for several scenes to play nightly news excerpts and political ads (an effective use of technology). Matthew White of 4th Coast Productions created the video elements, which feature local actors Marc D'Amico, Jonathan Ntheketha, and Mary Jayne Waddell as newscasters.
In June 2016, the National New Plays Network announced that "Church and State" would be its 60th rolling world premiere, opening at The Skylight Theatre in Los Angeles that month. The show is currently in readings in New York City and will open Off-Broadway in 2017 -- but for now, audiences can only see a full production in Rochester. "Church and State" is one of the most stunningly relevant plays currently onstage, and it's not because of election season (though that doesn't hurt). It's because of human nature, and because there will always be trauma and doubt and redemption.
The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission, and the action begins to move quickly halfway through. A good number of Sunday's audience remained for the talkback with the cast and director after the matinee -- the conversation was Q&A-style as Meranto ran a microphone around the auditorium. "I had forgotten, after watching TV too much, that there are still reasonable people making reasonable arguments," said one woman in the crowd, her voice shaking with emotion. A silence fell over the auditorium, and then someone said quietly: "Everyone go vote."