REVIEW: “Church & State” at Berkshire Theatre Group

by Roseann Cane

A screen descends, and on it a political television commercial appears. We hear the voice of Senator Charles Whitmore (Graham Rowat), a Republican North Carolinian candidate for the Senate, and see a familiar visual collage of family, flag, and good Christian folk. As the screen disappears, we find ourselves in an offstage waiting room at a university, where Whitmore, accompanied by his wife, campaign manager, and a starstruck student, prepares to stoke support for his candidacy by speaking to an enthusiastic crowd.

It’s just three days before Whitmore’s inevitable reelection. But it seems that something has shaken Whitmore’s devotion to “faith, family, and football.”  Just a week before, there was a shooting at the elementary school Whitmore’s two sons attend, and friends of his sons were among the 29 children gunned down. Whitmore is experiencing a crisis of faith and is agonizing over his established stance in support of gun rights.

His campaign manager, Alex Klein (an outstanding Keira Naughton), who also happens to be a Jewish Democrat from New York, is beside herself when she learns that Whitmore intends to forego his prepared speech and describes his doubts instead. Klein understands that such a speech puts  Whitmore’s candidacy is at stake, and she argues mightily for him to stick to the script. Whitmore’s wife, Sara (Judy Jerome), is devoted to her interpretation of Christian values and her relationship with the Lord. She may appear to be a subservient Southern belle where her marriage is concerned, but she has a will of steel and a temper to match. While her husband quotes John Lennon, “God is a concept by which we measure our pain,” she is outraged and unshakable, using every weapon in her arsenal–seduction, shouting, verbal manipulation–to bring back the man she thought she knew.

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Williams is passionate about gun control, and he understands the need to create a national conversation before any change can be made. Much to his credit, he and director Cohn (who is also his wife) have required a talk-back after every show. (An impressive roster of speakers is scheduled for each show at the Unicorn.) On opening night the audience had the great good fortune to have a talkback with the playwright and the director, and I was gratified to learn about Williams’s motivation to inspire an inclusive, respectful discussion of gun control nationwide, which he wisely sees as a crucial step in bridging the divide in opinions. He and Cohn hope to take Church & State to every state in the union. As Williams writes in the program notes, “While most writers hope that their work will live forever, my dream for this play is that it will become obsolete….I hope it moves people in some way. Perhaps enough to take action with their voice and their vote and bump the needle ever so slightly in the conversation about gun violence.”

As I watched the play, I found it difficult to accept Whitmore’s change of heart. Rowat turns in a fine performance as the tortured politician, but, like so many, I’m confounded and heartbroken by the many conservative politicians who, even after the horrifying regularity with which mass shootings occur, still insist that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” and urge that arming teachers is the way to stop school shootings. The fault, as I see it, is in Williams’s writing, and because I admire his passion so much, it pains me to say that. The play has many fine moments, including scenes between Naughton and Jerome, who find that despite their very different beliefs, they have much in common. The entire cast, including Andy Talen who neatly takes on four different roles and plays each one very well, is excellent.

To her credit, Cohn is well aware of the necessity to move the action along at a steady pace. Unfortunately, there were quite a few times during the show where pairs of characters shouted their dialogue in unison, making it impossible to hear what either was saying. I wished the conversations has a more realistic overlap. David L Arsenault’s scene and lighting did the show proud. David Murin’s costumes seemed nearly perfect; I only wish that Jerome’s shoulder tattoo had been covered. It peeked out of her sleeveless dress, and I don’t think Sara Whitmore would ever get tattooed, so it was a distraction from an otherwise admirable performance. Kudos to Scott Killian for his skillful and original sound design, and to Alex Hill for his projections and video design.

Church & State is not a perfect play, but it is an important one. I do hope Williams and Cohn achieve their wish to produce the play nationwide, and that people from the entire political spectrum have the experience of seeing it and participating in the conversation after the show. I hope that you, too, will see this provocative play during its run at the Unicorn, and join in the conversation afterward. We need to talk.

The Berkshire Theatre Group presents Church & State by Jason Odell Williams, directed by Charlotte Cohn, from June 14-30, 2018, on the Larry Vaber Stage in the Unicorn Theatre, 6 East Street in Stockbridge, MA. Scenic and lighting design by David L Arsenault; costume design by David Murin; sound design by Scott Killian; projection and video design by Alex Hill. CAST: Judy Jerome as Sara Whitmore; Keira Naughton as Alex Klein; Graham Rowat as Senator Charles Whitmore; Andy Talen as Tom/Marshall/Reporter/Security Guy.

Tickets for Church & State are $56, and $47 for Previews. Tickets may be purchased in person at the Colonial Ticket Office at 111 South Street, Pittsfield or by calling (413) 997-4444 or online at www.BerkshireTheatreGroup.org. The Ticket Office is open MondaySaturday 10am–5pm, Sundays 10am–2pm or on any performance day from 10am until curtain. All plays, schedules, casting and prices are subject to change.

A Talkback with will follow every performance. Names and dates of Guest Speakers are subject to change without notice. Special Talkback Guests are as follows:

6/16 8pm Charlotte Cohn (Church & State director) and Jason Odell Williams (Church & State playwright)

6/18 7pm Laurie Norton Moffatt (Director and CEO of Norman Rockwell Museum)

6/19 7pm Senator Adam G. Hinds (State Senator)

6/20 2pm Dr. Alan Chartock (WAMC President/CEO)

6/20 7pm Jennifer Goewey and Tess Lane (Elizabeth Freeman Center representatives)

6/21 7pm Jodi Faith Sherman (Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Alumna) and Charlotte Cohn (Church & State director)

6/22 8pm Philip R. McKnight (Constitutional Law Professor; B.A., Williams College, J.D., University of Chicago Law School)

6/23 2pm Anne Thalheimer (Everytown Survivor Fellow)

6/23 8pm Malcolm Nance (Author, Counterterrorism and Weapons expert, WAMC and MSNBC contributor) and Joe Donahue(WAMC Senior Director of News and Programming)

6/25 7pm Mark Barden (Sandy Hook Promise), his daughter, Natalie Barden and Greg Gibson (Author of Gone Boy; Representative of Everytown for Gun Safety and Antiquarian book seller)

6/26 7pm Greg Gibson (Author of Gone Boy; Representative of Everytown for Gun Safety and Antiquarian book seller)

6/27 2pm Chris Haley (Director of MA Department of Mental Health)

6/27 7pm Representative William Smitty Pignatelli (MA State House Representative)

6/28 7pm Josh Horwitz (Executive Director of Coalition to Stop Gun Violence)

6/29 8pm Jane Tillman (Evelyn Stefansson Nef Director of the Erikson Institute for Education and Research of the Austen Riggs Center)

6/30 2pm Charlotte Cohn (Church & State director), Jason Odell Williams (Church & State playwright) and Paul Friedman (Executive Director of Virginia Tech Victims Family Outreach Foundation)

6/30 8pm Dr. Andrew Gerber (Director of Austen Riggs Center)

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