Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

June 19, 2018

REVIEW: Berkshire Theatre Group, Church and State

Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA
through June 30, 2018
by Mary Fernandez-Sierra

In his eloquent playwright note for “Church and State,” Jason Odell Williams defines his view of the reason for writing: “…to speak to each other’s hearts.”

With fine acting and subtle artistry, the play gives voice to Williams’ heartfelt vision. This show is a triumph, particularly due to its strong cast, production values and wonderful script; it is moving and amazing theatre.

Photo by Emma Rothenberg-Ware
"Church and State" tells the tale of a senator who starts to question his core beliefs, political career, and marriage – just hours before his bid for re-election. His wife and campaign manager, as well as the media, become tangled in his effort to untangle himself. There’s plenty of comedy as well as drama woven everywhere in the play: as the playwright also states, “Comedy and tragedy are not two ends of a single line, but two points right next to each other on the same circle.”

As troubled southern senator Charles Whitmore, Graham Rowat is utterly convincing, charming and heartbreakingly human. He draws the audience in to understand and empathize with his conscientious struggles regarding religious faith, controversial lawmaking and political aspirations, as well as his personal challenges with a strongly opinionated and passionate partner.

Judy Jerome gives a powerhouse performance as the Senator’s wife Sara. This actress runs an incredible gamut from conventional politician expected-wife behavior to Southern-belle hissy fits, down-home wisdom and more than a little feminism and independence. Jerome’s monologue about her husband’s legislative amendment is a masterpiece.

Keira Naughton, portraying Charles’ campaign manager Alex with just the right amount of frenzy and frankness, is superb. Her comic timing, delivery and the sensitivity with which she responds to both the senator and his wife as the play develops, are a joy to behold. She is a perfect foil to both Charles and Sara, bringing reality, humor and perspective into the story.

Much applause and admiration are due to Andy Talen, performing several smaller pivotal roles. Talen is a true trouper, portraying each character uniquely and skillfully. His wonderfully understated water bottle speech as Tom is one of the highlights of the production.

The skill of director Charlotte Cohn is seen everywhere in this production. The movement is centered, natural and intimate, bringing the audience right into the heart of the drama. The main characters are never preachy, though several semi-sermons are delivered throughout this powerful script. She uses a light director’s hand in dealing with some heavy themes, allowing the words and ideas to shine as much as the fine performances.

Subtle colors, moods and images are evoked, thanks to designer David L. Arsenault’s elegant sets and lighting. Sharp-looking contemporary costumes by David Munn truly enhance the characters, and the beautiful and effective video and projections designed by Alex Hill add even more to the visual artistry of this production. Sound designer and resident composer Scott Killian’s seamlessly adds background tunes at just the right moments throughout, and well-crafted crowd noises during campaign speeches. Bravo!

If it’s true that the devil is in the details; this production proves that there are also angels. It is rare to find a show in which so much careful attention has been given to virtually every aspect of a production, each component in harmony and sync with the other.