God, guns get a very human debate in "Church and State"
"Church and State," at The Studio Players Golden Gate Center stage through Oct. 20, dives into the deep end quickly. The questions between two of its protagonists after a school shooting sear the mind:
How can we bear the horror of senseless killings without calling on God to keep us moving?
But where can God be — how could God be — in a blood-spattered classroom where children were gunned down?
It's a prescient piece of work. Jason Odell Williams wrote "Church and State" in 2013, after the Sandy Hook murders of 20 schoolchildren and six adults, but before the shootings at a music festival in Las Vegas, the massacre in an Orlando nightclub, the Pittsburgh synagogue murders and the killings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland and in Marshall County High School in Benton, Kentucky.
The play could have been sent to the printer just yesterday. In its central character's battle for political survival, he is being smothered by a constituency — even a spouse — so steeped in their personal beliefs there is no hope of dialogue. For Sen. Charles Whitmore, a chance remark to a Twitter-savvy blogger sets off a firestorm that only deepens his agony after having toured the crime scene and watched his friends bury their children.
Whitmore must take on his wife, a classic steel magnolia, and his politically precise campaign manager, a liberal Jewish New Yorker who has never lost a race. At his heels are his intern, the blogger and a reporter, as well as an entire offstage electorate whose votes are being cast in three days.
Written in 2013, it's still today's play
Williams, talking from Brooklyn, lamented that much of what he wrote before the Donald Trump presidency has come true. Firearms attacks on legislators. Inflammatory Twitter wars. More mass shootings.
"It premiered in summer of 2016, June, in LA and then in Rochester (New York) in October, literally weeks before the election. We planned it that way," he recalled. "All the Twitter stuff was in there before before Trump became president."
The unfortunate thing, he continued, is that nothing has changed to age "Church and State."
"There's a sort of cycle of: There's a big mass shooting and there's this outpour of response. 'We gotta do something, we gotta change,' and everybody says 'We're gonna do something.'
"And then weeks go by and it dribbles away and people go on to the next controversy."
"Church and State" has cemented the playwright credentials of Williams who is just premiering his third theatrical work. The play will have made the rounds of 31 states by the end of 2020, only four years after its premiere. He's found himself in demand for audience-director-playwright talkbacks after the play.
"I’ll either phone or Skype in and do a talkback. I've Skyped in to Alaska. I’ve Skyped in to casts who have questions," he said Williams.
Brett Marston, director for this play, would understand that. He and the cast have crawled over jagged rocks to create the right tone in "Church and State.
"The more we get into it, the more complex we realize the play is," he said. And hardest, but most critical, is to tend its comedy.
"I really appreciate his notes on not losing sight of the humor in the play," said Marston, who pointed out that in reality, people do engage in ridiculous logic and comic movements even at the most trying moments. And where could they get more ridiculous than in the final days of an election?
"It's a comedy that has some very significant dramatic moments," Marsten said.
"I have seen plays about guns or school shooting or mass shootings or movies about the topics. And when they’re complete dramas, I feel like you lose your audience," Williams said. "It’s almost exploiting the audience with the violence, with the trauma, and it's almost offputting. It's offputting to me personally.
"It's not like a Neil Simon jokey-joke comedy," Williams continued. "The comedy comes from real-life situations from the humanity, the absurdness of Twitter, some malapropisms from the wife and sort of the interdynamics between the wife and the campaign manager, who are two women who are strong-willed."
Both sides have belief to respect
He said he was careful to rein in caricatures of the people whose viewpoints he may not espouse. Williams attended the University of Virginia and many of his friends were from Virginia and North Carolina.
"They're great people. They're lovely people," he said. "Maybe I don't agree with their politics or their views on religion or whatever, but you can't help but like them and treat them as human."
His first objective, he said, is to get the viewers to know and like their characters.
"And then if you bring the audience in .... and you slightly, lightly bring up the topic of the shootings, then God and then the Second Amendment, then you're more willing to listen. If you just lecture people for an hour and half, no one wants to see that."
Marston incorporated his own ways of bringing the audience into the play with a pair of lecterns on both sides of the stage for the play's political speeches: "We kind of break down the fourth wall with the speeches," he said.
Further, The Studio Players production has uncoupled what was a one-act play into two, inserting an intermission at one climax point.
"There was a lot we were giving the audience to ingest," Marston said. "We felt they needed some time to do that."
He and Williams have the same hopes for "Church and State": That people will start thinking about both its questions and statements.
"Where does God fit into our world right now? And where do we stand with our gun laws in this country?" Marston asked. "And I think it's broader than gun laws — it's about mental health and addiction."
"It’s really great to see people do the play," Williams said. "Theater is the one place where people are forced to sit quietly and listen to someone on stage and then you have this communal experience. And you get up and start talking about it with other people afterward."
Perhaps then, he suggested, something will change.
Harriet Howard Heithaus covers arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News/naplesnews.com. Reach her at 239-213-6091.
'Church and State'
When: 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 20
Where: Joan Jenks Auditorium, Golden Gate Community Center,
To buy:thestudioplayers.org or 239-398-9192