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Big-Time Religion 

by Michael Bowen


For once, a contemporary play that takes religious faith seriously. Admittedly, in God's Man in Texas, Bibles are thumped, sermons are fervent and sinners are saved, but David Rambo's characters are deeper than stereotypes. These are tempted men, flawed men, men who aren't above a little snooping, men who are terrible at ping-pong, men torn up over their relationship with God.


Rambo's play is especially well written, with thematic pairs chiming regularly as motifs to be pondered: sales techniques and preaching methods, folksiness and superiority, the spiritual and the material, fathers and sons, shouting and whispering. Rambo has stated that his play is about the "religion of sales and the selling of religion," and in fact explicit parallels are drawn between preachers and traveling salesmen.


Director Robin Stanton's program notes sketch the play's intersection with business ethics, though it's also about organizational politics, resistance to change, fear of mortality, the craving for a legacy. But Rambo's play isn't about a middle manager in Texas; it's about God's Man, and the consolations and demands presented by Christian ethics when pitted against worldly temptations. When the flock is growing, temptations (money, power, fame) assault the shepherd. In response, some shepherds shout their demands at God; other pastors decide to wait patiently for God's whisper.


When Dr. Jeremiah "Jerry" Mears (Tim Kniffin) comes to audition for the role of pastor at Houston's biggest mega-church, Rock Baptist, he is confronted by the Rock's famous octogenarian pulpit-pounder, Rev. Philip Gottschall (Jack Bannon). Gottschall has created an entire campus full of cradle-to-grave provisions for Christians, and he's not about to give it up -- not the racquetball courts, not Gottschall College and certainly not the television broadcast of the 10 o'clock service. Here in "the Baptist Super Bowl," there will indeed be a transfer of power. Someday. Maybe.


As Jerry, the supplicant for power, Kniffin lets the character's genuine piety shine through, not only in his thunderous preaching, but also in the play's exquisite final scene. Patiently waiting for the Lord, a beatific smile on his upturned face, Kniffin makes us believe that Mears's belief is devout. Rambo's stage directions challenge the actor to project a voice that is "startlingly rich and movingly expressive," and in the sermon-snippets we witness, whether Mears is preaching to thousands or dozens, Kniffin actually pulls it off. When in the presence of Rev. Gottschall, however, he overdoes the bowed-head, folded-hands subservience. Mears runs a mega-church of his own that is 6,000 strong. He isn't likely to be all that deferential -- not when he can be so theatrical and self-assertive in the pulpit.


Bannon's Rev. Gottschall -- is there a Southern inflection of "gotcha," as in "I got y'all"? -- is in denial. He rejects any parallel between preachers and salesmen and sniffs that "the son of God wasn't a used car salesman." Yet he's obsessed with how big the Gottschall empire has become, over what the latest attendance numbers reveal. Bannon gets the elderly televangelist's preaching mannerisms exactly right: hands flopping about, then fiddling with the sides of podium, a man at ease in the spotlight, bellowing Scripture, delivering his sermon without notes, all studied insouciance.


Tall and angular, in white goatee with a bald pate, Bannon looks like some Old Testament prophet. He stumbled several times over misremembered lines, but that actually enhanced the impression of a patriarch struggling to stay sharp. Portraying all of the good reverend's facets, Bannon shows us how Gottschall can be impressive and petty, commanding and small.


David Seitz plays Hugo Taney, a reformed sinner who runs the audio portion of Rock Baptist's weekly TV broadcast. Seitz squeezes comedy even out of the penance that Hugo is always performing. And he's not just a funny man: As an ally to Gottschall, who deliberately heaps more pressure on Jerry during his tryout for the pastor's office, Seitz shows us Hugo's sadistic glee. All along the way, Seitz expertly conveys the comic gadfly, the desperate job-seeker and the prodigal son.


Robin Stanton's direction keeps the action fluid, with quick shifts between sanctuary and ministers' office. In a three-man play, though, she often moves her characters along an imaginary triangle from point to point in a mechanical way. One significant moment -- a father-figure declaring satisfaction in his son -- was lost in a rushed exit. Still, in the conclusion, Stanton chooses just the right moment to position her actors far forward.


In a play about listening to God's word, the audience was leaning forward quietly just then to hear an intimate expression of faith. In fact, on opening night, applause intruded only at the end of each act. After all, people don't want to get caught clapping in church. They go there to hear God's whisper.

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