Playing the Anglicans

Despite Lionel's doubts and failures, he is the most sympathetic character in the play, and it is his anguish over his neglected family that moves us all. John Hutton gives the finest performance of his distinguished career as Lionel--there is an intense humanity behind that gentle, intelligent face. Andrew Philpot makes the zealous Tony the perfect flip of a coin. He's a man of mindless faith, full of passion that sometimes overwhelms principle.

Director Powell's staging is nearly seamless. The spare set consists of a stony floor, stained-glass windows (lights projected onto the floor) and a few church pews, chairs and tables. The scenes move quickly and smoothly from parsonage to church, from garden to Synod.

It couldn't have been easy to do this play or do it so well. Yet all of these actors seem completely at home in their cassocks and move through the rough terrain of church politics as if they truly know whereof they speak. Apparently, they do: In a recent interview, Powell says he "threw everything in but the kitchen sink" when he was researching the show. He read up on Anglican doctrine, politics and criticism--everything from C.S. Lewis (the greatest Anglican apologist of the twentieth century) to Hare's diary of his own research, which took the playwright five years to complete.

"A lot of us started going to church again," adds Powell. "It started as research for me. I was raised Catholic. The first time I went to St. John's Cathedral, the canon gave a rabble-rousing speech--something to the effect that any church that forgets its responsibility to the poor deserves its own irrelevance. Sunday morning with the rich folks; I was impressed. It had just enough pomp to satisfy my Catholic snobbery."

Powell had a local Episcopal priest come to talk to the cast and point out to them that the religious vocation has a lot in common with the acting profession: seventy-hour weeks, little pay and even less job security. Powell compiled a fabulous glossary of religious terms that ended up being 41 pages long. He realized early on, for instance, that when he asked if cast members knew what the Holy Spirit is, they'd heard of it but couldn't define it. "The glossary became a grail for me," says Powell. "There were some inaccuracies. But fortunately, there were those I could call upon--like Tony Church, who actually has had lunch in the bishop's garden."

The director visited churches and took photos, too--partially as blueprints for the set designers, but also to soak up the feel. He soon decided that he wanted the set kept simple. "This one," he says, "ought to be about the actors and the story."

Powell says that, based on his research, Hare's picture of the Church of England as an empty one is largely accurate. According to one survey, in America 90 percent of the people say they are Christian and perhaps 40 percent go to church regularly. In England about 55 percent say they belong to the Church of England, but only 5 percent actually attend. Churches are closing down all over the place. The play is about that crisis and about the men and women who have to deal with it on a daily basis.

"We have been working to find whatever light is in [the play]," says Powell. "Because if there isn't any, then why come? You could take it on as 'it's all for nothing.' But what is important about it, what makes it worth watching, is the struggle.

"Anyone can throw stones at the Church, and that's a cheap shot," continues Powell. "I think there is a real possibility that people will think about this and find out what they feel about all this--where do you stand in your relationship to God?" He says he encouraged the actors to go to the churches they were brought up in and remember their feelings toward them--even negative feelings could inform the performances. He even distributed to the cast a taped episode of The Simpsons in which the Reverend Lovejoy loses his faith and blue-haired Marge Simpson has to pick up the slack.

Whatever works, says Powell. Here, everything does.

Racing Demon, through June 14 at the Denver Center Theatre Company, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.

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