STOCKBRIDGE — Art, it's been said, can hold a mirror to life. It also can offer a vision of life — society — as we would like it to be. It is much to playwright Jason Odell Williams' credit that he manages to do both in his 2016 play, "Church & State." which has made its way to Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theatre in a solidly crafted production that's been directed with finesse by Williams' wife, Charlotte Cohn.
Set in a small backstage green room at North Carolina State's Stewart Theatre in Raleigh, N.C., "Church & State" focuses on the moral and spiritual crisis faced by an incumbent Republican junior U.S. Senator who is in a tight race for a second term.
We are introduced to Sen. Charles "Charlie" Whitmore (a gentlemanly and authentic Graham Rowat) through a political ad in which he is characterized as a "compassionate conservative; just the kind of leadership from the right that Washington needs," the commercial's narrator claims with boldness and authority. A legislator whose record includes action to "block a restrictive ban on firearms," Whitmore is described as "a family man who believes in good Christian values; the kind of values on which this country was based." He is a man of deep and abiding faith. But there is an unsettled air about the figure who appears in the green room as the stage lights come up and the ad ends and fades; something roiling beneath the bravado and confidence; something more than stage fright as he prepares to address a rally three days before election day.
The numbers have him in a statistical dead heat but the numbers don't concern him, he tells his white, Jewish, New York liberal campaign manager, Alex Klein (a credible and nuanced Keira Naughton). "I trust you," he tells her.
Alex is too experienced not to know better. "Security said you were mumbling to yourself, acting strange, then just disappeared without a word. We circled the building five times looking for you."
Alex tells Charlie she needs him on his A-game. Practiced as he is, delivering an A-game will be formidable for Charlie. This man of deep and abiding faith has lost God and he may well have tipped his hand to a blogger who questions Charlie immediately following the funeral of two of the victims of a school shooting in the community earlier in the week — classmates of his sons; a family he, his wife, Sara (expertly played by Judy Jerome), and their children know well.
Charlie angrily, and with great pain, questions what kind of God would allow this tragedy — all these school shooting tragedies — to happen. He understands that offering prayers and thoughts to the bereaved is inadequate. — "These families don't need my prayers right now," Charlie recalls telling the young blogger in an emotional response to a question after the funeral, "they need my action. I'm a politician. And it's my duty to honor the victims by doing everything in my power to make sure this never happens again."
Charlie and Alex are savvy enough to know that if his remarks about his waning faith in God hit social media, it will lead to a campaign crisis of major proportion. Much of the play has to do with how to make the best of what appears to be a calamitous situation and the consequences, three days later, of the choices that are made. For Whitmore, who is seen as having a bright political future, the crisis ranges deeper than the promise of tomorrow as he struggles to reconcile one set of deeply held beliefs and values with the cruel and confounding reality on the ground.
In less skillful hands, this all could play as a withering screed that preaches to the choir. To be sure, Williams has established a context that allows him to unapologetically wear his heart on his sleeve. "Church & State," at times, comes perilously close to sacrificing human dimension for sermonizing. And yet, even when you sense the play's better impulses begin to buckle, "Church & State," as played here, finds life in the intense and richly human dimensions of its characters. The play is as engagingly witty and funny as it is poignant and thoughtful. "Church & State" rises and falls on the strengths and foibles of its characters, none of whom, especially Jerome's shrewdly crafted Sara, behave predictably. That's less a matter of guile than it is a function of what it means to be human.
Cohn's production moves at a clean, purposeful clip. For all the weight of the play's themes and discussions, there is, until the sobering ending, a buoyancy here, a lightness of being that is very much in keeping with a play whose ideas, rather than shape the characters who embody them, are shaped by the characters.
Rowat's Charlie is a man of gentle and ingratiating humor who is living the dream until the dream turns nightmare. Rowat paints him with grace and understanding; respect for a principled, essentially down-to-earth kind of guy who is, at once, forced to reexamine the most fundamental of his beliefs. For all Charlie's experience, Rowat infuses him with a charmingly ingenuous, child-like quality.
Jerome's Sara has a keen sense of her roles as mother and U.S. Senator's wife but it also is clear that the accommodations she and Charlie have made have taken a bit of a toll. At the same time, the stakes in "Church & State" are as high for Sara as they are for her husband. Her ability to rise to an occasion has as much to do with the arc of "Church & State" as does Charlie's spiritual crisis.
Naughton's Alex is a skillful, resourceful, quick-thinking political operative who has a good deal at stake in this job. She comes to admire Charlie even if her image as a Jewish liberal from the north could, down the road, become something of a liability for this man of North Carolina.
Andy Talen adds some nice touches in his various appearances as a paid intern with the campaign, the blogger, a news anchor and a security agent.
To a degree, Charlie, shortcomings and all, is too good a character to be true — life as we would like to see it. Still, he's a voice of hope at a time when hope is rare, vital and precious.
Jeffrey Borak can be reached at email@example.com or 413-496-6212