By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Pegasus Theatre brings us Eric Coble's comedy with a few of the company's patented missteps -- comic styles that jar and occasionally grate when blended onstage -- intact. But the script is so sturdy and compassionate, and the best performances are so filled with a variety of pleasurable little moments, that you find yourself following the play's formidable two-and-half-hour length right down to the last, unexpectedly touching moment.
Shannon Woelk, who has racked up some of the better performances at Pegasus recently, settles into the director's chair for this outing, the first in that company's "Y2K Sci-Fi Season." She and set designer Bill Owen have transformed the stage into a three-tiered showcase to display the interlocking stories of Anne, Reverend Pete, and Ruth. Anne (Sherry Raymond) is a dewy-eyed worker for a children's Christian television ministry who is desperate to get money so she can send CD-ROMs featuring the interactive story of Job to comfort suffering tots in Rwanda. Reverend Pete (Raymond Banda) is a white-haired, hollering, judgmental televangelist, advisor to the president, and leader of a ministry for seniors. Ruth (Robyne Gulledge) is belligerent couch jockey who discovers while overexerting herself channel-surfing that the face of the prophet Ezekiel has emerged in her pudding.
I won't tell you exactly how these three are related, because one of the chief pleasures of Virtual Devotion is watching the playwright and the cast tie up all the strands. Suffice to say that a "national crisis" brings them together even as it isolates the show's fourth major character, Jesus Christ (Pat Watson), who has returned to earth to gather followers in the midst of a mysterious airborne plague.
The AIDS parallels get a little heavy-handed (those randomly struck down by the disease are deemed guilty sinners by the healthy devout), and America's more shameless TV preachers haven't exactly been ignored by American satirists over the last 20 years. But Virtual Devotion seems cannily aware of its own easy targets. Just when you're about to groan that these cans lined up atop the fence can't take another shot, the aim switches, and we're allowed to see the humanity behind people who are so blinded by the promise of salvation that they can't see the Savior. Jesus is ignored pretty much everywhere he goes, because he can't see how Reverend Pete's selling copies of The Big Book of Condemnation over the airwaves will help people receive his message of grace, humility, and mercy.
The best comic and poignant moments in the script are so good, I couldn't help but wish that director Woelk would provide a calmer guiding hand over the usually frenetic brand of Pegasus comedy. Granted, A. Raymond Banda is supposed to be loudly declamatory and gesticulate wildly as the doomed Reverend Pete, and he does make you laugh a few times. But Banda has in the past tended to overdo it with roles inappropriate for that approach, so there's a bit of an unpleasant residue here.
But Vikas Adams is the real focus-stealing culprit here; he's good enough to seem genuinely different in each of the four supporting roles he plays, but he expends altogether too much energy and doesn't seem to be concentrating on the inherent funniness of his lines.
The reason we know that these two are several tablespoons too much is that they share the stage with smashing performances by Sherry Raymond as Anne and Pat Watson as Jesus. Raymond says that this is her first comic performance, and she has a smooth charm and natural comedienne fluency that gleams like a gold tooth in the crazy Pegasus clown grin. The fact that she has perhaps more lines than anybody else is what keeps your attention anchored on the fates of her character and those in her story. Lastly, accomplishing what is, to say the least, a very difficult feat, Pat Watson makes a Christ who is at once dignified and giggle-inducing. Watching his bearded face, sharply featured and soft at the same time, shift quietly back and forth from quizzical to patient to pleased as the shenanigans unfold around him, and then delivering a one-liner that's all the funnier because his Jesus doesn't intend to be funny, gives Virtual Devotion much of the clownish punch and warm gentleness it can boast.