“Three days before his bid for reelection, in the wake of a school shooting in his hometown of Raleigh, N.C., a Republican U.S. senator makes an off-the-cuff comment to a blogger. The comment gets leaked on ‘the Twitter,’ calling into question the senator’s stance on guns and God.”
That’s how Jason Odell Williams’ publisher describes his play “Church & State,” which ran in Los Angeles and Off-Broadway. A timely study of damage control in a social media world, “this look at how religion influences politics and how politics has become a religion is simultaneously funny, heartbreaking and uplifting,” with a fair share of humor along the way.
Spirit Gum Theatre Company opens a two-weekend run of the play on Friday at the Rhodes Arts Center’s Mountcastle Forum.
The cast of “Church & State” includes Hampton Rowe (Sen. Charles Whitmore), Teresa Prevatte (Sara Whitmore), Sara Butner (Alex Klein) and Alex Stone as multiple characters. Local actor and director Ken Ashford is directing for Spirit Gum.
As rehearsals have progressed, Ashford has found pleasure in working with a compact cast.
“One of the last shows I directed, ‘The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,’ had six adults and about 500 kids. Not really, but it seemed that way,” he said.
“It was a great experience, but at times it was like herding cats. This time, I am like a chef cooking with amazing ingredients. It is hard to get it wrong.”
Ashford finds that the play’s challenge is the balance between the comedy and the drama. “As the title suggests, the play is about where religion and politics meet,” he said. “People tend to have strong feelings about these subjects, but ‘Church & State’ treats all sides with both respect and humor.”
The trick for the director and the actors is finding the correct balance.
“The author has made sure to write something entertaining, not preachy, and devoid of stereotypes,” Ashford said. “And I’ve wanted to stay true to that. So, the challenge is to make sure it is funny despite some of the heavier material, and also not to belittle any particular viewpoint, because all viewpoints have merit.”
Even if their politics may differ, Hampton Rowe is pleased to be bringing Sen. Whitmore to life.
“From my first reading of the show,” he said, “I knew immediately I wanted to be part of this production. The message and subject matter are powerful, and yet accessible through the simplicity of the human interactions.”
Rowe, who first performed with Spirit Gum in “The Pillowman,” has been seeking what makes Whitmore tick.
“With any role, I try to bring a bit of myself and a lot of truth,” Rowe said. “The first challenge with creating the role of the Senator for me was age. I tend to read younger than I am and was worried I wouldn’t have the look of gravitas needed for the Senator.
“But by far the biggest challenge was playing a Republican,” he said. “Anyone who knows me, knows I am very active within the Democratic party.
“That said, I always treat every character as if they are the hero of their own story, even if playing a villain. Sen. Whitmore, like all of us, badly wants to be the hero of this story, and that desire is what prompts his examination of his faith.”
Rowe feels that “Church & State” keeps its storytelling from becoming too weighty.
“This show is a must-see, because it is a fun and humanistic look at a daunting subject. No matter what side you are on and regardless of your views, the examination of how one works through life’s predicaments that this show highlights will make you think,” he said. “Theater’s purpose is to inspire and educate as well as entertain.”
Ashford feels that “Church & State” is not a typical play that builds its story around politics.
“Anyone who follows me on Facebook knows I am a political person, but the truth is, I hate politics in my entertainment, usually because it is one-sided and, well, not entertaining,” he said.
“This show, on the other hand, makes me laugh. And it is also really effective at showing, to quote a well-worn political phrase, that there is more that we have in common than that which divides us.”