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In the current PlayMakers Repertory Company production of God’s Man in Texas by David Rambo, two Baptist preachers battle for the soul of a fictional Houston megachurch and its associated college, K-12 school, day-care centers, movie-theater complex, swimming pools, bowling alleys, etc.
When Dr. Philip Gottschall (Philip Davidson), the crusty 81-year-old pastor of Rock Baptist Church and one of the most prominent Southern Baptist preachers ever, finds out that the leaders of his congregation have formed a pastoral search committee — without his knowledge — to choose his successor, he is furious. He defies Baptist doctrine, strong-arms the pastoral search committee, and actively recruits Dr. Jeremiah “Jerry” Mears (Kenneth P. Strong), pastor of the rapidly expanding Crockett Avenue Baptist Church in San Antonio, to come to Houston as his co-pastor and eventually succeed him. Then Gottschall decides not to give up the most powerful pulpit in the Southern Baptist Convention after all.
The resulting power struggle could take place in any big church in any Christian denomination when the pastor lets pride overrule judgment and gets so enamored of the power of his position that he cannot let go when he reaches retirement age. For example, Dr. Philip Gottschall is proud that he has been a spiritual advisor to every President since Dwight D. Eisenhower — well, every President except Bill Clinton. (Although an Episcopalian, former President George H.W. Bush frequently attends Rock Baptist Church; but former President Bill and U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton are personae non grata in Houston and in the church.)
God’s Man in Texas is a terrific three-character play, with the third character — headset-wearing video production specialist Hugh Taney (Sean Hennigan) — serving as the eyes and ears, first, of Gottschall and, later and to his extreme detriment, of Mears. Playwright David Rambo has created three flawed but immensely appealing and fully three-dimensional individuals, and the humor—and there is considerable humor in God’s Man in Texas — comes from these three men’s character quirks and not at the expense of churches in general or Southern Baptists churches in particular.
Philip Davidson gives a majestic performance as Dr. Philip Gottschall, an eloquent preacher of the Word and for decades and decades one of the brightest stars in the Southern Baptist firmament. But Gottschall is increasingly self-absorbed, stubborn, and suspicious; and he jumps to erroneous conclusions about the loyalty of his co-workers.
Sean Hennigan plays earthy former drug addict and current audiovisual specialist Hugh Taney as a rough-as-a-cob Texas good-old boy, who when excited can utter an occasional crudity, much to his own chagrin and the embarrassment of the two pastors. Hugo employs an aw-shucks folksy manner to endear himself to Drs. Gottschall and Mears, but only Mears sees the pain beneath Hugo’s cheerful facade.
Ken Strong, who long ago established his credentials as one of the Triangle’s finest actors, seems uncharacteristically tentative in Dr. Mears first few scenes. But Strong is merely making palpable the scads of butterflies frantically fluttering in the stomach of his character as Dr. Jerry Mears prepares himself to preach in the pulpit of the Baptist Vatican while he unknowingly auditions to succeed the Baptist Pope as pastor of Rock Baptist Church.
Strong’s performance as Mears grows and evolves over the course of the evening as the scales fall from the eyes of the earnest San Antonio pastor and Mears becomes surer and surer that, to get right with God, he must do the unthinkable. He must relinquish his posh position, and return to his hardscrabble Baptist roots.
PRC guest director Anthony Powell not only sets a brisk pace and elicits passionate and praiseworthy performances from all three cast members, but he hones the humor in the script to a razor’s edge and he employs remarkable wit and intelligence in staging this timely comedy/drama, which earned a rare (for PlayMakers) standing ovation at the final curtain on Saturday night.
Powell puts every inch of the thrust stage of the Paul Green Theatre to good use. Indeed, he even sends Ken Strong rushing out into the audience — up the aisles on three sides of the theater — to dramatize the plethora of public appearances by Dr. Jerry Mears before myriad Rock Baptist Church groups that eventually drives Mears to distraction.
Scenic designer Robin Vest does a grand job with dark woods and expensive furniture in creating the pulpit and the ritzy minister’s room of Rock Baptist Church; and lighting designer Peter West skillfully illuminates all the action, whether on stage or in the aisles. Costume designer Anne Kennedy tastefully dresses the pastors in expensive tailored suits and Hugo Taney in an off-the-rack wardrobe from Wal-Mart; sound designer Michèl Marrano artfully uses sound and music to underscore the script’s comic and dramatic moments; and composer M. Anthony Reimer provides a nice score that draws on familiar melodies from some of the audience’s favorite hymns to add another note of authenticity to the proceeding.
God’s Man in Texas is an unlikely hit for the prize-winning professional theater company of a campus until recently ruled by one of the Princes of Political Correctness. But it is a hit nevertheless, and PlayMakers Repertory Company deserves kudos for tackling a play in which unwavering adherence to biblical values and true faith ultimately triumph over the materialism that infects so many modern-day churches.
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents God’s Man in Texas Tuesday-Saturday, March 7-11, 14-18, and 21-25, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 12, 19, and 26, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theater in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $10-$32. 919/962-PLAY (7529). Note 1: There will be a post-show discussion with playwright David Rambo after the show’s March 7th performance and two more post-show discussions, led by dramaturg Gregory Kable, after the show’s March 8th and March 12th performances. Note 2: There will be an all-access performance March 21st, with Braille and large-print programs, audio description, and sign-language interpretation available in addition to the assisted listening system and wheelchair seating that PRC offers at each performance. PlayMakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org/genPage/index.pl?pgid=98 [inactive 8/07]. David Rambo: http://davidrambo.com/ [inactive 1/10]. God’s Man in Texas: http://davidrambo.com/_wsn/page2.html [inactive 1/10].