Through Sunday, May 7
Ward Theatre Company, Durham

It’s generally good advice for a theater critic to review the performers and not the audience. But Revival, the quirky, atmospheric new work from Ward Theatre Company, renders that counsel null and void.

As in last summer’s I Wish You a Boat, director Wendy Ward and her company have transformed their modest studio into an evocative placeone far removed, in time and space, from its mundane office park surroundings. After that earlier production placed us in steerage aboard a doomed ocean liner, now a doorway veiled in floor-length pieces of sturdy, cream-colored canvas takes us into an old-time tent bedecked with strings of clear and colored lights hanging overhead. At one end of the space, the following is written in large, red capital letters: “He will make your paths straight. Fear the Lord and turn away from evil.”

As crickets chirp in the distance, Mae (Alexandra Petkus), a young woman in a plain gray fifties housedress, sits on the mourner’s bench, wilted from the day’s exertions. She beckons the tent’s other occupant, a teacher named Ephraim (Evit Emerson), to stop putting up chairs and tell her, again, of the religious vision he had.

In this visitation, the deity doesn’t split the skies or raise the dead. Instead, he helps Ephraim straighten up his bedroom, do the laundry, and grade some papers, which prompts Ephraim to marvel, “And the marks were fair and just!”

It’s a quiet, telling moment amid an annual tent revivalmultiday summertime church camp gatherings that have been a social and spiritual high point in Appalachian Christianity for well over a century. Dramaturgical research, another Ward Theatre hallmark, is in evidence in the compiled text for this self-styled “collage.” In one of the excerpted sermons, I recognized passages from Alan Lomax’s Appalachian field recordings for the Library of Congress.

But the production takes an unexpected twist during the dramatized sermons: the preacher, Pastor Ralph Hewitt (Brandon Cooke), is never seen. When only his voice resonates through loudspeakers, all that’s left for us to focus on is his audiencethe congregation.

We face them straight on and watch the different ways they respondor don’tto the down-home appeals and cautions of the reverend. Some have clearly brought their troubles with them to this separate, sacred place. Dwight (Chadwick Thompson), who occasionally pulls from a flask, lost his wife two weeks earlier. Margery Rinaldi’s Artie, tasked with the camp cooking, is at odds with her taciturn husband, Spark (Rick Skarbez).

The rousing songs and liturgical dances that punctuate these proceedings are borrowed from contemporary R&B, blues, rap, and gospel music, but their fervor is not far removed from the Pentecostal expressions of faith this work is based on. Faith is also made manifest as the congregants eagerly interact, vocally and physically, with the preacher. Hands are lifted in supplication as a spiritual point hits home; wounded souls nod earnestly as they seek comfort and confirmation in the pastor’s words.

Ward’s strategic focus verges on voyeurism as we explore the faces of people having religious experiences of varying intensity. As Evelyn (Dominique Barnes) leads soulful renditions of “Trying to Make Heaven My Home” and “Angels in Heaven,” Elsie (a striking Kara Phelps) grapples with the spirit moving among the congregants, and Artie physically surrenders to the moment.

I must observe that a sequence depicting schisms among the group in rap form is less effective, and certain gestures begin to lose their impact when the same actors repeat them too often. Still, an eerie water ceremony at the close overcomes many earlier doubts. At this distance, I’m still not certain if I was moved in places by something holy, or by the naked needs of the humans before meneeds that were met in some cases and not in others. Perhaps they’re one and the same, in the end. Still, I can report, without doubt, that I was moved.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Box with God.”