As I noted last week in "27 Reasons We Love the Triangle Right Now," the ancient Greeks used theater to consider the thorniest political problems of their day. What's less obvious, though, is that theater is inherently political, even when it isn't trying to be.
Since every tale can't be told simultaneously, whenever a company chooses to place a particular play in the public eye, it's necessarily privileging that narrative above others, at least for a time. When a company announces a season, as several have in recent weeks, we have every right to conclude that it has chosen shows that express its best thoughts about the most relevant and immediate stories for our time.
One cannot fault The God Game, whose incisive regional premiere closes this weekend at Sonorous Road Theatre, on such grounds—or Zuccotti Park, for that matter, which Justice Theater Project unveiled last weekend in its new venue at Umstead Park United Church of Christ.
In The God Game, playwright Suzanne Bradbeer's characters—a young Virginia senator, his wife, and a potential political kingmaker who's been their longtime friend—debate an uncomfortable and paradoxical reality of present-day American politics: in a republic whose Constitution expressly forbids legislation "respecting an establishment of religion," only a professed Christian has a chance of being elected to the nation's highest office.
Under June Guralnick's direction, a pensive David Hudson portrays Tom, a rising, somewhat progressive Republican star whose military service, political bona fides—and conspicuously devout wife, Lisa (Courtney Christison)—have until now deflected questions about his personal religious beliefs. But when the party's presidential nominee, a reactionary who's been pandering to the "anti-intellectual and anti-gay wing of the party" wants him as his running mate, Lisa realizes two things. Tom's agnosticism can't stay hidden, and it could pose more than a political risk to them both.
Contemplating the religious fringe element, she tells Matt (Beau Clark), the political operative who's just offered Tom the vice presidency, "If people found out he didn't believe in God, someone would try to kill him!"
But as it continues, the discourse between Matt, Tom, and Lisa takes on biblical overtones all its own, primarily related to temptation and resistance. Before the end, Tom and Lisa are both seduced by their old friend with the promise of power and its trappings. And all it would take is the smallest compromise: an occasional word about God from the lips of an unbeliever.
Bradbeer's plotting is uneven. In one energy-sapping sequence, she gins up a gratuitous argument on the nature of souls to highlight Tom and Lisa's disagreements on religious matters. The trio's backstory runs a little long as well. Still, the confrontations of conscience at the end effectively pull taut any slack on the line.
But this production sometimes appears to lack its own necessary faith in the story. Guralnick needlessly adds a sound and light cue or two to the script to underline moments that are already adequately portentous.
Miyuki Su and Jeffrey Nugent's tasteful set wraps around the audience, placing us in Tom's home office. And Neill Prewitt's preshow multimedia montage punctuates eighteenth-century military tattoos and contemporary hymns with Ronald Reagan's remarks on the separation of church and state and Franklin Graham's thoughts on that subject on Fox News in 2016.
But we begin to feel lectured—if not preached at—as the video runs overlong when a series of locals present their views on government. And it's hardly subtle when Guralnick concludes the production not with Bradbeer's last lines but with video overkill: footage from Jeff Sessions's confirmation hearings, juxtaposed with footage of a forest fire.
In Zucotti Park, playwright Catherine Hurd and composer Vatrena King attempt to immortalize in musical theater the historic Occupy Wall Street demonstrations that took place there before similar protests were sparked across the country in 2011. Ironically, some of the problems that ultimately limited the long-term impact of the movement also bedevil this stage interpretation.
Early on, after a dippy TV news reporter (Lucia Foster) asks what the group is protesting, the ensemble roars, "Everything!" Unfortunately, when you try to put everything, including a contrived romance, into one show, focus and characterizations become problematic.
Hurd's script strings together stand-alone sequences that momentarily look at factory workers forced into unemployment, medical insurance caps, inflation and fixed living costs, and homeless military veterans with PTSD, among other complaints.
Given so little stage time to spend with the people embodying these difficulties, directors Jesse Presler and Aya Wallace struggle throughout to develop robust, believable characters among their extended cast. The pitch problems that plague certain singers only make things worse.
The subject matter is noble, and the social struggles depicted here continue to this hour. Unfortunately, weak production values and a script that tries to cover everything in two brief acts don't bring justice to Zuccotti Park.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Breaking Faith."