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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Church and State
Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Wedding Band, Speechless, Electra, Don Pasquale and R. L. Stine's Goosebumps, the Musical: Phantom of the Auditorium


Kim Kivens, Matthew Rein and Miriam Schwartz
Photo by Sarah Whiting
The first amendment to the United States Constitution begins "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," words that seem straightforward on the page but have been the cause of countless conflicts over our nation's history. It has not kept politicians from claiming America to be a Christian nation, nor from running campaigns that tout their Christian values. Charlie Whitmore, a Republican U.S. senator from North Carolina seeking re-election for a second term, is such a politician. Though Whitmore is a fictional character in Jason Odell Williams' timely new play Church and State, currently in production at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, his campaign platform, core supporters, and strategy can likely be matched to any number of current actual elected officials.

Hand in hand with his mantra of Christian values (his campaign slogan has been "Jesus is my running mate") is strong support for Second Amendment rights, holding back any laws that would limit or restrict access to firearms. However it evolved that being Christian is linked to gun-ownership, the two seem inseparably joined on many campaign trails. This has served Charlie well, garnering him the support of the all-mighty NRA, until a horrible act of violence rocks Charlie's confidence in his long-claimed beliefs. A shooting in the Raleigh elementary school that his own two sons attend took the lives of dozens of innocent children, including his sons' best friends. For Charlie's wife Sara, a devout Christian and a wily political animal, this is a time to lean on their faith more than ever. But Charlie processes things differently: How can he believe in a God that would allow this to happen? For that matter, how can he believe in a God that wants so many guns to be in the hands of so many people?

It is just three days to election day when, at the funeral for his son's two murdered friends, Charlie is asked by a young man who calls himself "an independent journalist" (which Charlie's campaign manager, Alex Klein, explains is "code for blogger") whether he "turned to prayer in his time of need." Charlie reacts badly to this query, asserting that the families of these victims don't need his prayers, they need his actions so that nothing like this happens again. Oh, boy! Both Sara and Alex are desperately worried that he will cave in to his emotions and lose the election. His words to the blogger have already gone viral. Now he wants to drop his prepared campaign stump speech and speak to the voters from the heart.

What's more, Sara's ever deepening prayer life has Charlie feeling inadequate and questioning his marriage. Sara sees everything in terms of God's plan. She believes in admitting your helplessness and turning your trials over to the Lord. She expects Charlie to follow suit and his crisis of faith puts her in a panic. Besides, she is really counting on another six years living the cushy life of a senator's wife. Campaign manager Alex Klein, a Jewish New Yorker, was hired by Charlie—against Sara's judgement—because she is a straight talker and will tell Charlie when he starts to go off the rails. Well, she is telling him now. Alex joined the campaign, believing Charlie was likely not only to win, but to be positioned for a future run for the White House. Her own values never really enter the arena. She practices the art of winning elections.

There are face-offs between Charlie and Alex, Charlie and Sara, and Alex and Sara. The latter are as different as pork ribs and gefilte fish, but they eventually find common ground, especially around their desires for Charlie to win the election. In only 80 minutes, Church and State takes us through the election and beyond, with a major surprise altering the course of events for the three main characters. The sharp plot twist late in the play is a bit gimmicky for my taste, but it does prompt a huge audience reaction and opens the way for the outcome to go in new directions. Williams leaves the ending open, asking us to write the conclusion, perhaps hoping for us to take action beyond appreciatively applauding his work.

If Church and State sounds like a serious play, it is. It is also immensely funny. The lion's share of humor comes from Sara, a good old girl still acting the churchgoing high school cheerleader into middle age. In Kim Kivens's portrayal, she also makes one of the funniest drunks I have seen on stage for a very long time. Her plain-spoken language makes a great comic sparring partner to Alex Klein's New York political wonk-speak. Kivens shines in the role of Sara; it's probably the best thing she's done since her 2011 Ivey winning turn in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Not only is she funny, but she allows us to see her character change, unleashing the intelligence she was forced to hide as a political wife, and finding the courage needed to persevere when everything fades to black.

Alex Klein is played by the wonderful Miriam Schwartz, in a welcome return to Twin Cities stages after a year's absence. Schwartz brings her native intelligence to the role, along with portraying Alex's driven ambitions. She brings out the droll humor in her character, trolling the waters for irony. When Sara quotes a bible verse (for Charlie's benefit) and Alex identifies its place in Proverbs, Charlie turns to her and says "I thought you were Jewish." Alex responds "The Old Testament is Jewish." Of course, that is correct, but with Schwartz's deadpan delivery it is also hilarious.

Matthew Rein plays Charlie Whitman with just the right amount of ambivalence. Does he or does he not believe in God? Is he or is he not going to run up against the NRA and fight for gun control? Does he still believe in his marriage? And does he even really want to win this election? Charlie, we learn, comes from political blood—both his father and brother held office before him—and as played by Rein, seems like maybe he loves it, or maybe he is just doing what was always expected of him (probably mere coincidence, but some have described Jeb Bush in those terms). Rein's Charlie appears to be smart, but not brilliant. That feels right in the context of the play. He is more of an emotional creature than the circumstances of his life warrant. When it comes down to it, he finds that he can't lean on his wife or his campaign manager, but has to trust himself.

Appearing in several small, perfunctory roles, Josh Zwick makes an impression as Tom, a low-level aide whose uncomplicated response to the question of God's existence becomes an unexpected turning point.

Design credits are well handled, in particular Reid Rejsa's sound design that brings us the hullabaloo of a campaign rally next door, and the hushed tones of somber political commentary on TV. Barb Portinga has found dresses for Sara Whitmore that allow her to look church-bound conservative and sexy at the same time, while Alex Klein's mannish suit seems aimed at defying any resistance to her from the good ol' boys. Michael Kissin's direction blends together the humor, the serious arguments, and the sadness that are all ingredients of Church and State. He leaves the audience wanting to have an outcome, and realizing it is not in the playwright's or director's hands, but in ours.

Church and State was a product of the invaluable National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere initiative, which launched 2016 runs in Los Angles and Rochester, New York. The play then had a critically successful Off-Broadway run in Spring 2017. But Williams was first inspired to write the play after the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007. He was further inspired by Tucson, and again by Aurora. A month after Newtown he had a first draft. The Los Angeles world premiere occurred just weeks after Orlando, and now we can add Las Vegas to this roll-call of national grief and shame.

It is good that the play is entertaining. A dose of straight talk on the subject would be hard to take. It is also good that it does not offer an answer, which would likely be summarily dismissed, but rather provides a platform to address the intersection of politics, faith and violence in our society. If we can believe that theater makes a difference in national life, this would be a great place to start.

Church and State continues through November 12, 2017, at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at the Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, Saint Paul, Minnesota. Tickets: $23.00 - $38.00, student rush tickets: $12.00. For tickets call 651-647-4315 or go to mnjewishtheatre.org.

Written by Jason Odell Williams; Director: Michael Kissin; Scenic Design: Kirby Moore; Costume: Design Barb Portinga; Lighting Design: Paul Epton; Sound Design: Reid Rejsa; Properties Design: Bobbie Smith; Projections Design: Jonathan Gross; Stage manager: Joy Donley

Cast: Kim Kivens (Sara Whitmore), Matthew Rein (Senator Charles "Charlie" Whitmore), Miriam Schwartz (Alex Klein), Josh Zwick (Tom/Marshall/Reporter/Security Guy).


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