Matthew Rein and Miriam Schwartz are in “Church and State.” (Photo by Sarah Whiting)
By ROB HUBBARD | Special to the Pioneer Press
October 23, 2017 at 3:06 pm
Was there a time when politics was about problem-solving instead of gaining and maintaining power? I know there was, but it sometimes seems a vague and hazy memory. So what happens when an incumbent U.S. senator, on the weekend before Election Day, decides to confront a personal crisis of faith in public? How will people react?
Well, for those invested in the Republican senator keeping his career on the ascent, the answer is obvious: “Are you crazy?” And maybe the fictional senator, Charles Whitmore, is, as he and his entourage struggle with the battle between belief and winning, playing the political game and trying to affect change.
That’s the central conflict in “Church & State,” a new play by Jason Odell Williams receiving its Twin Cities premiere in a very solid Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company production. While only one of the three principal characters is Jewish — the senator’s exasperated and edge-of-panic campaign manager — the issues of faith, doubt and how to put your religion to work in your life are right in the company’s wheelhouse. While Williams’ script could be more nuanced and the production’s pace could flow more swiftly and naturally, this is a very worthwhile conversation-starter of a show.
So what set Sen. Whitmore off? Well, a gunman has shot up the elementary school his children attend, killing 29. When a blogger chats up the senator after a funeral, he’s stunned to find a man in power asking himself questions about how his view of God can co-exist with this tragedy. Like many, the senator is sick of this whole “thoughts and prayers” thing and is searching for ways to keep similar massacres from happening. And both his wife and campaign manager think that’s crazy.
Establishing the tone is tricky for this play, for at first it seems as if it’s going to be a political farce, what with its wisecracks and overlapping dialogue. But director Michael Kissin soon settles us into a place where the issues at hand get the airing they deserve without getting ponderous or preachy.
As Whitmore, Matthew Rein is every inch the career politician, projecting unflappability and friendliness, willing to toe the line of safety and predictability … until he isn’t. As campaign manager Alex Klein — a Jewish New York City Democrat hired because of her perfect track record in elections — Miriam Schwartz finds the sweet spot between toughness and vulnerability as she performs triage on a campaign she feels the senator is sabotaging.
But stealing the show out from under them is Kim Kivens as the senator’s wife, Sara Whitmore. A fascinating combination of stand-by-your-man Southern belle and Lady Macbeth of the Carolinas, Kivens’ Sara projects an air of smiling ditziness before it becomes clear that she’s the architect of her husband’s career. (“He may wear the pants in our house, but I choose the pants.”) She also expresses some very believable sympathy to her man’s crisis of faith in one of the play’s most absorbing scenes, as the two go toe-to-toe behind closed doors.
Yet don’t harbor the impression that this play is all reflection and rumination. There are a few significant plot twists within its 90 intermission-less minutes that send things off into unexpected directions. While it might eventually put too much faith in a system it’s been calling into question, that’s just one more subject for the post-show discussions you’ll likely want to have upon experiencing it.
IF YOU GO
- What: Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s “Church & State”
- When: Through Nov. 12
- Where: Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul
- Tickets: $38-$23; 651-647-4315 or mnjewishtheatre.org/
- Capsule: A solid staging of a thought-provoking play about faith and politics.