Sen. Charles Whitmore is in crisis. Until now, the silver-haired North Carolina Republican has appeared to be a man devoted to faith and fighting gun control. Yet something has changed. At NC State University's Stewart Theatre, he's killing time in a green room, delaying the moment when he will have to admit his love of both firearms and Christianity is evaporating.
That's the premise of Lyon Theatre's Church & State, which was written by Jason Odell Williams and invites us to watch as the tectonic plates of Charles' ideology shift and shatter. It's a play that sometimes stumbles—even people who only watch CNN in motel rooms may argue that Williams' take on American politics is cynical, but not cynical enough. Yet director Devon Lyon and a hard-working cast have harnessed the power of the story's provocative subject matter to create a theatrical experience that holds your attention and riles you up in a good way, despite its messiness.
Church & State—which was produced in conjunction with Triangle Productions—starts with Charles (Jeff Gorham) in the midst of what looks like a seamless re-election campaign. Yet as he readies himself to take to the stage at the theater, he reveals to his wife, Sara (Morgan Cox), and his campaign manager, Alex Klein (Jaime Langton), that after a recent mass shooting at an elementary school, he began questioning what kind of God would allow children to be slaughtered with an AR-15. On top of that, he's even mulling the merits of stricter gun laws.
To Sara, this is heresy. The more pressing issue, however, is that in a moment of unchecked fury, Charles voiced some of his newfound beliefs during an interview with a blogger, giving his conservative supporters the opportunity to paint him as a godless, anti-Second Amendment activist. And while Charles wants to run a conscience-fueled campaign, Sara and Alex would rather see him lie and get re-elected than speak his mind and become an also-ran.
Church & State asks what it takes for someone to step outside party parameters and ultimately reaches a fittingly ambiguous conclusion. However, Williams' decision to give the majority of the play's most emotional lines to Charles and the majority of its most pragmatic lines to Sara and Alex belies the reality that even the gutsiest politicians need to be careful strategists. While witnessing the women in Charles' life being forced into the role of his mostly ignored advisers is painfully familiar, it would have been more interesting—and more believable—if Charles had joined them in wondering whether the cost of telling the truth is worth paying.
While no cast could have fully transcended these flaws, the stars of the play come close. As Alex, Langton speaks at a brisk, irritable clip that's fitting for a character who cares more about winning than she does about the rise or fall of any particular ideology. Gorham, meanwhile, looks great in Charles' senatorial uniform—blue shirt, red-and-gold tie, gray pants—and delivers his climactic speech with passion so palpable some audiences may forget they are attending a play and not an actual campaign rally.
As Church & State nears its somber, wrenching finish, it unleashes a series of narrative twists that are shocking when you watch them unfold though seem inevitable in retrospect. The play's greatest strength is not that it surprises you in the moment, but that it leaves you with plenty to think about. While the American debate on guns has become a farrago of misinformation, the play addresses the issue with heartening clarity, especially when it persuasively makes the case that it is possible for life-saving gun control laws and the right to bear arms to coexist.
It's hard to say if that argument has changed many minds since Church & State was published in 2017. Yet Williams' point is that not enough people have tried. Sen. Charles Whitmore does, and along the way, he moves from crisis mode to action mode. All the play asks from us is that we do the same.
SEE IT: Church & State is at Triangle Theatre at the Sandy Plaza, 1785 NE Sandy Blvd., lyontheatrepdx.com. 7:30 pm Friday-Saturday, April 26-27. $20.