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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
By Macey Levin

I don't want our boys growing up in a world like this.— Charles
Keira Naughton, Judy Jerome, Andy Talen, Graham Rowat;
Jason Odell Williams' brave and provocative play Church and State tackles several controversial issues now pouring through American life. Gun violence and control, separation of church and state, political manipulation all take center stage at Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge.

United States Senator Charles Whitmore (Graham Rowat) is running for re-election in three days in North Carolina. He is preparing to address 800 of his supporters at a rally this evening after attending a funeral for two victims of a school shooting where his two young sons are also students. In a quick interview with a reporter he says that he doesn‘t believe in a God who allows these shootings to occur. When his comments are tweeted, his wife Sara (Judy Jerome) is aghast and angry as she is fervent believer; his campaign manager, Alex Klein (Keira Naughton,) is upset because his statement could destroy his candidacy.

Though the issues reverberate throughout the play, gun control is at the core of the conflicts. The pro and con arguments are debated in our media every day, but playwright Williams infuses these issues with passion and humanity.

The three characters fervently express their differing points of view which propels their relationships onto precipitous footing. Sara has placed all her faith in God and Jesus, as Charles had done earlier in their marriage. But as the mass shootings have become so commonplace and has now been brought to his hometown, the firmness of his beliefs has weakened. On this evening he is torn between delivering the stock campaign speech he's used for months and " speak from my heart." Alex pleads with him not to respond to the tweets, not only because of his candidacy, but to be able to continue to work on other prestigious campaigns.

The White house beckons and no one is immune. The play then shifts to election night and preparation for his forthcoming speech. There is a twist to the conclusion of the work that complements what has previously occurred.

The acting by the three, along with Andy Talen, who plays four different characters, is compelling. When the play first opens, the audience can sense some tentativeness by Charles, but at times, as that first evening goes on, there is determination in his eyes and carriage. His conflicts beat at him; however, when he makes his decision it is his alone. Sara is the force behind him, but it is camouflaged by Jerome's southern gentility and ebullience. Her religious fervor is palpable, which lends her strength and candor. The job of a campaign manager is to keep the client focused; Naughton's Klein is persuasive, though frustrated by his indecision. Her annoyance at his vacillation is more than pronounced. Talen's major character, Tom, a stagehand at the rally, is suitably simplistic and perceptive.

Charlotte Cohn, the director and the playwright's wife, keeps the play moving and the tension rising. However, there are several moments when the characters speak at the same time and it is difficult to discern what each is saying. The characterizations are definitive and their motivations clear; her staging is brisk with effective stage pictures.

An arresting technical element occurs at the opening of the play when a Wh—itmore television campaign ad, designed by Alex Hill, quickly sets the tone and introduces the major character. The other design components —set, lighting, costume and sound— complement each other to create the requisite atmosphere and time placements.

Due to the nature of the thematic elements of the play and the commentary on many of today's social issues, BTG has scheduled a discussion after every performance with guests who are well-versed in the subject matter. Massachusetts state senator Adam Hinds participated in the talkback the evening I attended, as was Director Cohn. She said that both she and her husband plan to mount Church and State in every state by the end of 2019 to encourage a grassroots nationwide discussion.

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Church and State by Jason Odell Williams
Directed by Charlotte Cohn
Cast: Judy Jerome (Sara Whitmore) Keira Naughton (Alex Klein) Senator Charles Whitmore (Graham Rowat) Andy Talen (Tom/Marshall/Reporter/Security Guy)
Scenic and Lighting Design: David L. Arsenault
Costume Design: David Murin
Sound Design/Resident Composer: Scott Killian
Projections and Video Designer: Alex Hill
Stage Manager:Shelby North
Running Time: eighty minutes; no intermission
Berkshire Theatre Group, Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge, MA
From 6/14/18; closing 6/30/18
Reviewed by Macey Levin at June 19 performance

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