Church and State
Through Sunday, May 12
In a career-best performance, actor Brian Yandle’s voice cracks with emotion: “I saw the blood splattered around that classroom. On the chalkboard and their little art projects and the American flag. Saw a group of crying first-graders standing in a baseball field … No one should have to know that fear. No one.”
In the thought-provoking drama Church and State at North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre, it’s moments before a pivotal campaign speech, and Yandle’s character, the junior Republican senator from North Carolina, is telling his wife about the event that rocked his faith, not only in God but in the Second Amendment.
Three days before an election is not an optimal time for a candidate to have serious second thoughts on anything, much less the bedrock issues that got him elected in the first place. But earlier that morning, Yandle’s Senator Charles Whitmore went off the rails when a sanctimonious conservative blogger (played by Christian O’Neal) questioned his religious beliefs outside of a funeral for victims of the latest American school shooting in Raleigh. With news of that encounter now going viral, Whitmore has to figure out what he truly believes and how to tell his God-and-guns constituency, moments before he goes on stage.
But while the political debate in Jason Odell Williams’s 2016 script is sharp, his character and plot construction are conspicuously less so. Both pose problems that director Yvonne Anderson hasn’t solved, outside of Yandle’s breakaway lead performance. Unfortunately, even that veers away from believability when a conservative Republican from North Carolina quotes John Lennon on God, first to make points with his wife and campaign manager and later with the folks back home. A staffer’s T-shirt with the campaign slogan “God is a concept” further telegraphs the playwright’s disconnect.
Though Liz Webb delivers a scrappy, focused performance as Alex, Whitmore’s campaign manager, Williams’s script never gives us an inkling of why a liberal Northern politico would stake her career on a conservative Southern Republican as mainstream as Whitmore.
The credibility gap widens further when Whitmore’s wife, Sara, suddenly morphs from a self-centered, butter-wouldn’t-melt candidate for The Real Housewives of Wake County to an ethical force leading a national effort on gun control. Melanie Simmons is a noted local actor, but she’s poorly served as she attempts to square that unlikely circle with little help from the playwright, before being forced to stand, silent and still, for an interminable period during Anderson’s problematic staging of the final scene. Because Williams hasn’t fully figured out how to make his argument in a believable world, Church and State suffers as a work of political theater.
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