Playing the Anglicans

Anyone who's ever been to Christmas mass at St. John's Episcopal Cathedral in Denver knows that the church is what the theater wishes it were. It has drama, mystery, joy, a sense of the tragic, a joke or two and, at its best, a feeling of transcendence. Moving the church into the theater is quite a trick. But the Denver Center Theatre Company's production of English playwright David Hare's Racing Demon pulls it off.

Hare's incisive work investigates matters of policy and faith in the Church of England with more understanding and compassion than one might expect of a skeptic. He takes a group of priests and demonstrates their dedication and passion for good even as he lets their sins and shortcomings surface. And the DCTC's sparkling production revels in the complexities of these all-too-human relationships.

Doing this show--a tough sell on the surface--took some moxie for the DCTC. Non-religious people might think the subject irrelevant to their lives. Religious people might fear that a bunch of heathens down at the DCTC would treat a religious subject disrespectfully. But every issue in this show is played out in other fields, from politics to academia and beyond. And there's no disrespect intended: Each member of this cast is so palpably living his or her role that you'd think they were born to it.

Director Anthony Powell, whose deft touch can be felt at every moment throughout, knows exactly how to build each of the complicated relationships of this play so that we feel every nuance of emotion, every knowing hypocrisy and every real stand for principle.

As the show opens, we overhear an Anglican priest praying. He wants God to speak, to stop hiding himself from his people. Reverend Lionel Espy scolds God gently for his silence. And right away, we know that this priest is languishing in doubt. He believes in God; he just doesn't see what good it does to believe in him.

Lionel gets into trouble with his bishop when he tries to replace time-honored church rituals with his own brand of social gospel. The bishop sternly reprimands him and tries to return him to the Anglican path. But while Lionel has a good heart--he wants to serve his fellow man--he is singularly ineffectual. Bishop Charlie, an old institution man, treats him as a headmaster would treat an unruly teacher he must force into line.

In an attempt to jump-start Lionel's faith, the bishop sends him a new young curate, the Reverend Tony Ferris, who's afire with evangelical fervor. Tony overhears Lionel's tepid advice to a woman whose husband beats her and who has just had an abortion, and he is horrified. Tony wants a lot more Hell and a lot less "human understanding." So he goes to the woman's house and tries to fight her husband, then gets Social Services to have the guy arrested. Unfortunately, Hare doesn't really understand the nature of wife-battering, so this digression seems a trifle overstated.

Meanwhile, Tony has problems of his own. He's got a mistress, whom he dumps after she helps him through the darkest period of his life. The whole audience chortles when he delivers the standard brush-off line, "I always want to be friends." Tony's a loser. But despite his hypocritical treatment of the lovely Frances (Carol Halstead in a highly moving performance) and despite his attack on Lionel's character, Tony really does have some integrity and vision. He's not simply a hypocrite, a zealot or a fool. And though his theology may be of a peculiarly simplistic and brutal kind (he thinks God killed his parents in an auto accident to teach him a lesson), he's right about Lionel's useless pastoring.

All of Hare's characters have mixed motives, yet you can't really dislike any of these people. The bishop (played with powerhouse conviction by Tony Church) may be hard-hearted, but he, too, is more than he seems. He knows that what Lionel gives his parishioners isn't enough, that the people have a right to expect spiritual food from their pastor rather than warmed-over servings of his own doubts.

Two of the most likable characters, Harry and "Streaky," two priests who love and support Lionel, have problems with courage. Harry (at last, William Denis gets a role worthy of his considerable talents) is gay but can't face coming out to his parishioners. Streaky (the ever-engaging Jamie Horton goes for sincerity and good humor) is a good priest who loves God and man and takes more joy in his work than any other character. He tries hard to keep the bishop from canning Lionel, but when push comes to shove, he's too timid to stand up for his friend.

Hare understands that human motives are always mixed. There's always a bit of self-interest mingled with the highest ideals, always a little sin stirred in with the rectitude. The question is, what's the right proportion?

While each of these characters points a finger of recrimination at the others, their individual shortcomings surface in obvious ways. Sometimes hypocrisy obscures self-knowledge. But sometimes an honest difference of opinion or a twist of temperament makes a man blind to his own failings and blind to another's virtues. And here's the real problem that emerges in the play, though Hare himself may not have seen it: None of these men really knows anything about the nature and character of love. They talk about it, but none has a clue about how to live it. God is absent from all their lives (except perhaps Streaky's), and none of them thinks to change himself to suit God--they all want God to change to suit them.

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