Bible Belt Blues
Eons ago, the church invented theater. The praising of gods, in fact, has always involved a good deal of heart-throbbing music, edge-of-your-seat storytelling and fabulously glittering costumes. Just think about all the hellfire and brimstone raining down from the rafters of Southern Baptist churches every Sunday morning. Those down-home homilies can make getting saved the most gut-kicking theatrical experience this side of Broadway. Baptists even have their own superstars. All honey-voiced and full of good-old-boy charisma, the preachers who sing out the praises of God on television are as familiar to us as Madonna.
And they take center stage in David Rambo's God's Man in Texas, an account of one fellow's struggle to find the Almighty amid the gaudy gewgaws that make up the biggest and baddest of all the televised houses of worship, the fictional Rock Baptist Church, brought to electrified, amped-up life at Stages Repertory Theatre.
Dr. Jeremiah Mears (James Huston) is a Southern Methodist University-educated pastor with the sort of erudite, blue-blood credentials that help explain his ability (desire?) to cite from the Bible in Hebrew and in Latin. He's also a true fundamentalist, the kind of Bible-thumping, God-loving Christian who can quote scripture -- book, verse and line -- from memory to argue any point. Raised in the church by a street-preaching papa who called himself "Christ's rabid dog," Mears is a man who wants desperately to know God, to be humble before Him, to hear His quiet and deeply personal "whisper" of love. Mears also wants to be pastor of the gargantuan, Oz-like Rock Baptist Church, the mightiest Baptist outpost of them all. Complete with a bowling alley, restaurant, swimming pool, dinner theater, snack bar, day care, school and college, Rock is the sort of self-contained entity that's practically a Christian city unto itself. And it just so happens that Dr. Philip Gottschall (Paul Menzel), the man who created Rock, is retiring, and the charismatic Mears is called to audition, along with several other stars of the Southern Baptist circuit.
While all this might sound like the perfect setup for a tacky-and-trite farce about all those wacky, twang-talking Baptists, Mears's story is actually quite serious and wonderfully tender, particularly in the hands of director Rob Bundy. Focusing on the essentially paradoxical nature of fundamentalism, a system that asks all believers to be loud and public about their faith to all who will listen even as they remain quietly humble before the Lord, the script examines the way the dualistic nature of such a belief plays out in the heart of one good man, one who is honest, faithful and, most of all, lost.
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Part of what makes this production so successful is Huston's soulful performance as Mears, the confused rising star. We watch as he preaches the gospel from the great Rock pulpit. The ornate mahogany podium, draped in dark red velvet, has held the well-worn Bibles of such luminary Christians as Billy Graham, yet Mears doesn't hesitate when he first strides up to the spotlight. Huston has created a true God-loving preacher-man whose sweet, wise face looks straight into the eyes of his congregation as his lush, warm voice catalogs the white-and-black states of being -- the glories of heaven or the fiery pits of hell -- with a creamy cadence and an urgent trembling whisper that could bewitch even the most avid sinner and yank him straight into the loving arms of Jesus.
Mears's first audition merits an invitation to preach a whole set of Sunday-night services. But Gottschall and his favorite gopher, Hugo Taney (Rick Burford) advise Mears to be more folksy his next go-round, to tell more little stories, to make himself more available to the people. Ever obliging, Mears steps up to the podium the next week, and rather than quoting scripture in Hebrew as he'd done before, he narrates a story about tricking his son into eating broccoli. The strange and utterly banal homily appeals to everyone, especially former president and renowned broccoli-hater George Bush, who just so happens to be at church that Sunday. And with that, Mears's fate at the Rock is all but sealed.
The power struggle that ensues between Gottschall and Mears is a powerful statement about the frailty of the human condition. Gottschall, who is simply not ready to relinquish authority, is brought to trembling life by Menzel, who taps into all the archetypal power of this 80-year-old pastor.
More interesting than the struggle between the two men, however, is the struggle within Mears. He is somehow aware of his slow fall from grace as he gets swept up in the small-time politics of parking spaces and luncheon invitations. It takes the secret angst of yes-man Taney -- Burford plays him like an energetic and gutsy East Texas grass snake, all hiss and no poison -- to pull Mears out of Oz and bring him back home to the world of sinners, the folks who really need him.
This mesmerizing tale of faith, temptation and redemption is as good as any Bible-school story you're bound to hear in a month of Sundays.
God's Man in Texas runs through Sunday, July 2, at Stages Repertory Theatre at 3201 Allen Parkway, (713)52-STAGES. $32-$42.
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