Encore Michigan

Following Parkland, ‘Church and State’ at Matrix explores what could happen if a Republican Senator grew a pair

Review June 10, 2018 David Kiley

DETROIT, Mich.–Parkland. Orlando. Las Vegas. Sandy Hook. Columbine. San Bernadino. Virginia Tech. That’s hardly a full list of mass shootings, but it’s a start.

But, no worries. Help is on the way. Always. In the form of endless thoughts and prayers. We’ll be fine.

Mass shootings, especially in schools, have become so commonplace and frequent that we, as a society, with some poignant exceptions like the students of Parkland High School, treat these tragedies, if we aren’t directly impacted, like just another unhinged, loopy Tweet from Donald Trump.

The rest of the civilized world [do we even qualify as civilized any more?] thinks America has lost its mind. Mass school shootings don’t happen anywhere else in the world, at least not with the horrific frequency we have in the U.S. Seventy-percent of surveyed Americans believe today’s gun laws must be tougher to make it more difficult for the mentally ill and criminal to get their hands on guns and ammunition. But the gun industry, whose interest is only in selling more guns for profit, has enough legislators in its pocket to keep the vast majority from getting what they want.

Into this morass of immorality comes a new play, Church & State, by writer Jason Odell Williams, now playing at The Matrix Theatre here, a city that ranks as number-one for violent crime.

Charles Whitmore (Sean Paraventi) is a Republican Senator from North Carolina, and it’s a few days before Election Day in which he is running for re-election. He attends a funeral for kids cut down in school by a shooter, the school where his own kids go to class. He gives a quick impromptu interview to a blogger in which he says “thoughts and prayers” are not only not enough, but he is doubting how a just and merciful God could allow this to happen. For a Southern Republican, this is like a New York Democrat being anti-choice and pro school-voucher. The newswires pick it up, and all hell breaks loose days before people vote.

Whitmore gives a speech that is not sanded down and sanitized by his campaign manager, Alex Klein (Kaitlyn Valor Bourque), in which he explains himself. His wife, Sara Whitmore (Sonjia Marquis) is in her husband’s face about the need to play it safe and not rock the boat. She enjoys being a Senator’s wife far too much to risk losing just because he had decided to grow a brain and conscience.

The brisk and timely 70-minute play focuses on the three principal actors debating what is the right thing for Whitmore to do. What is more important? That he wins, or that he is able to sleep at night?

Williams’ dialogue is believable, though I know of no sitting Republican Senator who fits Whitmore’s internal debate with himself. His characterization of the Senator feels more like a hopeful fantasy. Still, it is an effective painting to look ahead to what it might take for a sitting NRA-loyal legislator to grow a pair. Turns out a shooting at one of their kid’s school just might be what it takes. No point can be effectively made without a bit of humor, and Williams gives us good doses here to balance the obvious message.

Paraventi does a nice job of depicting the anguish of a Southern alpha-male who has been knocked off his horse by real human tragedy that came all too close to his own house. Sonjia Marquis strikes a terrific balance between the ambitious harpy political wife, funny and boozy sweet-tea sipping gal and devoted wife who really does love her husband. Bourque nails the role of hard-boiled New York campaign manager who seems to have an espresso machine strapped to her hip like an insulin pump.

Williams’ story is not just crossfire chatter. Some real stuff happens, but to go into it would be a spoiler. Let’s just say that this is a very worthwhile 70 minutes. Is it a “message play”? I suppose. But it’s a good one. And since we are living in a time when schoolchildren are taking hot bullets into their bodies to keep cowards in Congress and The White House and state houses from actually exercising common sense, and following the beliefs of 75% of the country, we can use all the good message plays we can get to try and reach a few people.

If the statistics and headlines and news footage can’t convince people we are doing this wrong, then perhaps a few more well-written plays can be one of the million points of light we need to illuminate the obvious.

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Week of 3/18/2019

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