Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Storefront Church grew out of Shanley's belief that the small, informal churches he noticed when walking around the Bronx were in some way a result of the impact on the borough's inhabitants by the mortgage industry fall-out, with these small houses of worship a way for individuals to fill the spiritual void. It is an interesting though not completely successful play due to the rather small view of the world it portrays and the fast resolution to the problems the characters face. Theatre Artists Studio's production features a gifted cast and solid direction, making the most of Shanley's script.
The play focuses on several residents of a Bronx neighborhood who have lost their way, but have come together in a makeshift church to discover that success isn't truly defined by money and power. Husband and wife Ethan Goldklang and Jessie Cortez are about to lose their house, unable to pay their mortgage. Jessie has rented out the basement apartment to Chester Kimmich, a minister from New Orleans who has plans to turn the apartment into a church. But Chester finds a huge void that he can't get past, so not only has he yet to give his first sermon but he is also months behind in his rent. Jessie reaches out to Donaldo Calderon, the eager borough president, for help. When Donaldo discovers that his mother co-signed the loan he arranges to meet with Reed Van Druyten, the bank's lending officer, yet runs into the bank's CEO Tom Raidenberg, whom Donaldo has borough business with and who says that he thinks he can solve Donaldo's dilemma. However, it appears that resolution comes with an underlying stipulation. Can Donaldo find a way to help Jessie without sacrificing his morals? It is an intriguing play that shows how the mixture of money, politics, and religion aren't always a heavenly recipe.
Just about everyone was impacted in some way by the mortgage crisis and most likely anyone who sees this play knows someone who was either foreclosed on or found themselves underwater, with the value of their house being below the amount they owe on their mortgage. So Shanley's decision to present the issue here as one that is quickly resolved with bankers who are eager to help seems somewhat unrealistic. Also, while the characters are intriguing and the plot is never boring, Shanley's focus on blaming the bank when it clearly is Chester's inability to pay his rent that is putting Jessie in a bind seems odd. There are also some issues with Shanley's pacing, with two extended scene changes that feature solo characters having an introspective moment on a bench that, while not out of character, don't really add anything to the play.
Fortunately, Shanley created interesting characters and under Carol MacLeod's sharp and solid direction the cast for this production all deliver beautiful portrayals, even if Shanley didn't quite give them all the same amount of nuance and believability. Dominik Rebilas is exceptional as Donaldo. He is delivering a compelling performance of this eager man who is trying to solve people's problems but also facing conflicted feelings as he tries to keep his integrity intact. Rebilas' expert facial expressions and solid stage presence form a realistic, three-dimensional portrayal. As Chester, William Mosley creates a likable man who is in a rut and can't find a way out, though Shanley doesn't exactly give us enough information to make it seem at first that he is much more than a freeloader. We are told that Jessie believes in Chester, but we don't exactly see why she should. While there is a nice moment where Chester talks about how his New Orleans church was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, Chester says he had a calling to open up his storefront church, yet the hole that he says is in front of him, one that is getting in the way of him opening up the church, is never clearly explained. Since Chester's presence is the catalyst for change for many of the other characters, the shortcomings of his character as written form a slight disservice to the play. Though there are some flaws in the writing for this character, Mosley manages to instill the part with some sympathy and reflection that help smooth over some of the shortcomings.
As Ethan and Jessie, Bill Straus and Larissa Brewington make a very realistic married couple who are desperate yet still full of love, life, and a huge amount of humor. As the bank CEO, Tom Koelbel is all business but also has some warmth, which gives the character dimension beyond being the villain of the piece. Shanley gives him a great moment where he can't stop eating pieces off of the gingerbread house his secretary gave him as a Christmas present, which is a perfect metaphor for the bank's treatment of homeowners during the crisis. Steve Fajardo is appropriately meek and short-tempered as Reed Van Druyten, a beaten down man with a tragic past. Fajardo makes him transformative in the final moments of the play when he discovers the ability to stand up for himself.
While Storefront Church may not be a perfect play it does have a moving finale and Theatre Artists Studio's production features a talented group of actors who deliver performances with commitment to their characters' social and spiritual beliefs. When all six individuals end up together for a service in the makeshift church, Shanley effectively shows that even a barren room can serve as a healing place for a community of strangers to find sanctuary together.
Storefront Church at Theatre Artists Studio runs through March 12th, 2017, at 4848 East Cactus Road in Scottsdale. Tickets are on sale at www.TheStudioPHX.org or by calling 602-765-0120.
Director: Carol MacLeod
Cast: (in order of appearance)