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.

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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