Berkshire Theatre Group's 'Church & State' a funny play about a serious subject


STOCKBRIDGE — A powerful synergy at home between spouses can lead to positive things for any family. Bleed that over to the workplace, and depending on the forum, you may just have an impressive dynamic on your hands.

It's exactly this type of vibe that local theater goers will have a chance to experience and appreciate as Berkshire Theatre Group kicks off its landmark 90th anniversary season with "Church & State," at The Unicorn Theatre's Larry Vaber Stage, on its Stockbridge campus.

The play is written by Emmy Award-nominated Jason Odell Williams, and directed by his wife, Charlotte Cohn, who has teamed up with her husband on a number of his productions.

Cohn said it can be difficult to separate work from home life, but it can also lead to deeply explored collaborations.

"Jason and I certainly have come to understand and admire each other's work over the years," Cohn said. "Sometimes, at home, one of us will run an idea past the other, and that's it. But then we might be ready to go to bed late at night a few days later, and the discussion comes back, and we examine it into the wee hours. It sometimes leads to answers and directions we may not have considered before."

"Church & State" might have taken a similar direction, Cohn said, as she considered what has been described as a funny play with a serious subject matter: gun control.

Just days before his bid for reelection, right after a school shooting in his hometown of Raleigh, N.C., a Republican U.S. senator, Charles Whitmore (Graham Rowat), makes an unrehearsed remark to a blogger that gets leaked on "the Twitter," calling into question the senator's stance on guns and God.

As his deeply Christian wife, Sara (Judy Jerome), and liberal Jewish campaign manager, Alex (Keira Naughton), try to limit the damage, the story evolves into an examination of how religion impacts political considerations, and how politics has become a creed unto itself. The ensemble (Andy Talen) is forever present, adding to the comedic impetus.

"Jason wrote this play just after the Sandy Hook school shooting, and he did so very quickly and very passionately, from a decidedly left viewpoint," Cohn said. "But in discussing it, I offered that an important topic must have some appeal to both sides of the aisle in order to truly help open minds and affect change, since it's easy to deliver a message to those who agree with you."

Cohn said that as a result, Whitmore turns out to be a sympathetic figure, who evolves during the story.

Rowat, who plays the role of the senator, agreed with his director, saying Whitmore has many things to juggle during the play. This adds to the comedy, but also highlights that emotional issues, such as gun control, "are complex, and the answers are not always clear to anyone involved with them."

"Whitmore is caught between many moving forces in this story, and yes, as you might expect, it adds to the brilliant humor in this script," Rowat said. "With family and faith, and this looming election, all pulling him in several different directions, he has to not only speak out in many different directions, but must also look into himself."

The play will run 75 minutes with no intermission. A talkback is part of every performance (with the exception of preview performances on 6/14 at 7pm, 6/15 at 8pm and 6/16 at 2pm), including personalities, such as playwright Williams himself; Cohn, Laurie Norton Moffatt, Alan Chartock and others. Names and dates of guest speakers are available on the Berkshire Theatre Group website, and subject to change without notice.

Cohn concluded by saying that she hopes the inclusive nature of the story speaks to people on all sides of the issue, adding that a good dose of humor can help the audience "enjoy being entertained, while still considering the gravity of Whitmore's journey."

"It's important to be able to talk about and have dialogue on the contentious issues of the day, and gun control brings out raw emotions in so many people," Cohn said. "While Jason reworked the play's approach from his first draft, he stayed true to his principles in doing it. This play is funny and serious and I hope it gets people moving in that direction."


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