“Church & State,” staged by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company hot on the heels of an off-Broadway run, starts out as a comedy, filled with broad characters and sharp quips. Midway through it takes a sharp turn, serving as a reminder that when you mix religion, guns and politics, you’re whipping up an incendiary brew.
The play revolves around U.S. Sen. Charlie Whitmore, a genial Southerner who’s built his career on a tried-and-true platform of “faith, family and football.” Three days before a hotly contested election, he suddenly goes off-script in response to a mass shooting at his children’s school. When a conservative blogger corners him at a funeral, Whitmore expresses self-doubt about his faith and support for gun rights.
As a Twitterstorm ensues, both Whitmore’s wife and his campaign manager launch themselves into the fray. Despite their previously prickly relationship, the senator’s crisis of conscience unites them in their efforts to salvage his career and their own ambitions.
Playwright Jason Odell Williams developed “Church & State” in response to the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007. Subsequent mass shootings have only added to its relevance. The play is a talky piece that presents some challenges, despite its heavy comic overlay. Michael Kissin’s direction doesn’t quite give this production the crackling pace it needs and, at least on opening weekend, the actors seemed uncertain at times.
Matthew Rein lends the role of Charlie an amiable likability and charming sense of self-deprecation that any politician would envy, and his newfound doubt in the face of tragedy is communicated with genuine consternation. He serves as the voice of reason in this play, as he authentically explores his own reactions to a devastating tragedy.
Unfortunately, the two women who orbit Whitmore serve more as comic types than actual human beings. Kim Kivens delivers a hilariously over-the-top performance as the Southern belle wife, with a syrupy exterior that belies her steely determination. She gets most of the funniest lines, blithely serving up sweet tea and fundamentalism as she bullies and beguiles her husband. It’s an energetic effort that rarely transcends the purely comic.
In contrast, Miriam Schwartz’s campaign manager is a humorless machine who stalks the stage with bristling impatience. The role serves more as a punch line than a person; when she objects to being labeled as gay, Whitmore’s wife snaps back: “You’re a Democrat from New York, it’s the same thing.”
This work isn’t likely to change hearts and minds, but despite a few flaws it’s an earnest and humorous effort that certainly adds color to the conversation.
Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities theater critic.