"God's Man in Texas"is the story of a very successful preacher and his successor, a man who shares the same charisma and commitment, but who is his own man. The hyper-theatrical and easily corrupted world of televangelism can be too easy a target for both comedy and dramatic irony, but this is a serious play filled with comedic insight. David Rambo's play balances the external temptations of worldly success, empire building, personal ambition and scriptural politics with the inner motivations of true faith and individual character. Confidently directed by Karen Lund, this production is very well-acted, a bit long on talk and a bit short on dramatic variety, but ultimately entertaining, balanced, and authentic.
Dr. Philip Gottschall has built the Rock Baptist Church into the center of a hugely successful broadcast empire, but now he's in his 80's, and it's time to move a successor into his power and glory. Eddie Levi Lee is exactly right as the Reverend. Imposing, paternal, alternately commanding and petty, large of spirit and veined by human frailty, Gottschall is a kind of evangelical King Lear bereft of daughters. This is a play about fathers and sons, literal and metaphorical. Gottschall rules a kingdom of airwaves, audience numbers and real estate, not from a throne, but from the pulpit. We see the probity that has brought him to this position, and the simple humanity that makes it so difficult to let go. By doctrine his successor is to be chosen by the church, not by Gotschall, but that is but one of many compromises and shaded hypocrisies. No one will take his place unless chosen by the Reverend, and then only when he is ready to abdicate.
Dr. Jerry Mears (Jeff Berryman) understands the power of this ministry, and the scale of the opportunity. This is the realization of a lifelong dream, even if it's a bit less glittering in reality than it was in his imagining. Modern religion comes with blessings at the Weight Watchers prayer meeting, the opening of the fellowship bowling alley, and innumerable committee meetings. Still, he brings his own strength of character to the position. When Gottschall appoints him co-pastor, he demands to be co-equal, which begins an inevitable usurpation of the old man's power. Mr. Berryman wears academic learning comfortably, and his humility is endearing and adds power to his dynamic preaching. In their very different ways, this production achieves an equality between two very large, very similar and very distinct men.
The third party is the immeasurably smaller Hugo Taney, whose technical skill consists primarily of making sure the two men are amplified, and clearly heard. Andrew Litzky makes the role funny and sympathetic. At the same time this harmless doofus is laughable, he is also emblematic of the greater congregation, listening intently to messages from the booth, awed and overwhelmed by the two "great" men, flawed but still believing in salvation by grace. Formerly addicted to practically everything, Hugo knows his inadequacies better than either of the Reverends know theirs, and is far more willing to say them aloud. Yet, when he is called on to simply stand up as a man, his failure is the play's most painful moment, and makes the big questions of the big men no greater than his own.
While a play about two speakers may inevitably be too talky, these are essentially men of the Word, and they give the language in this play nuance and grandeur while remaining profoundly conscious of its limitations. All of the characters recognize that their conception of the world, both physical and spiritual, creates the world, and they take responsibility for the truth of their words. Among the many things I admire about Karen Lund's direction is the way she gives ideas an equal footing with physical realities like churches and congregations.
I did feel that the second act hit a certain vocal pitch and stayed on it too long, and that Hugo's key scene was a bit overdone and extended. Some of the theological discussion gets a bit didactic, but overall this is compelling material. For all the earnest and substantial drama, it's also a very funny play, and surprisingly fast- paced.
"God's Man in Texas" respects the truth of each man's core faith, and makes clear that the corruptions of the world can never change what is spiritually immutable. In our cynical and disbelieving age, that seems bold and powerful on stage. Neither the playwright nor the director ever stoops to easy comedy or smug superiority over the follies of human nature. The work being done is a serious business, and the business is a mortal danger to the serious man. These men of God may have their eyes on Heaven, but the measure of their souls is in a very Earth-bound mirror.
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