God's in the details

The highest recommendation I can give Theatre Three's Texas premiere of British playwright David Hare's theological drama Racing Demon is that I emerged punch-drunk from the production.

The jabs weren't aimed at the audience, but if you have more than a passing interest in the internal politics of the contemporary Protestant church--and even for many of us non-Christians, it's a source of endless fascination--then you'll feel like you've absorbed a few of the countless jabs being traded by a cynical rector, a gung-ho curate, and a tyrannical bishop, all fighting to determine the future direction of the Church of England.

Racing Demon clocks in at three hours with intermission, a marathon sit even for people who love theater without musical numbers and flashy production values. Theatre Three's production has none of that, but augmenting the provocative dialogue and emotional face-offs is a dandy set by Harland Wright; a gigantic cross juts out from a portal and hovers majestically (or is that menacingly?) over the actors. Is this the symbol of Christ's life and work, or of the rigid bureaucracy of a 2,000-year-old church run by fallible men and women? Racing Demon offers some tasty possibilities, but ultimately lets you decide for yourself.

Although I was intrigued throughout the 12 scenes of the first act, I must admit to some trepidation upon checking the program and discovering that the second act had another 11 scenes to go. The good news is that Hare's script actually picks up speed as it goes along, making sure the fatalistic confrontations it has built toward actually happen. A superb cast, under the direction of T3's executive producer Jac Alder, hatch and cross-hatch the chaos of gray shades in Hare's intaglio on one simple question--is the first job of Christian clergy to administer the gospel of redemption through Christ, even if it doesn't necessarily address the problems of the parish?

Racing Demon takes a premise similar to the Broadway comedy Mass Appeal--weary old conservative cleric struggles with enthusiastic young liberal cleric over church doctrine--and not only soups it up with a look at how the liturgy influences their sexual relationships, but reverses the political sympathies. Here, the 60-year-old Reverend Lionel Espy (Hugh Feagin) is the Anglican renegade, a man whose affable demeanor cannot mask the great sorrow and outrage he feels at what his constituents face in the dirt-poor London he serves. A life in the church has radicalized Espy--he supports the ordination of women as bishops and the church recognition of homosexual unions, and he often fulminates about the dangers of poverty and racism from the pulpit. All this is much to the chagrin of the few older, middle-class members who still mingle with his poor congregation.

Joining the rector on a team of pastors assigned to serve inner-city London is the acerbic, quasi-openly gay Harry Henderson (Terry Vandivort) and dithery, sometimes drunken "Streaky" (Chapman Locke). The three of them are old friends, and largely aligned in the listen-first, preach-later style that characterizes their ministries. Not so the freshest member of the team, the curate Tony (Ashley Woode), whose youthful exuberance leads him to--literally--want to save the world. Tony is modern in the sense that he's tapped a PR company to create a billboard campaign to fill the pews of the Anglican Church; he's quite traditional (in America, one might call him "fundamentalist") in his belief that one Christ fits all. Campaigns against racism, poverty, and homophobia aren't blasphemous so much as irrelevant; if the reverends would only stick to the Word of God, all problems would be solved.

Terry comes aboard at a time when Lionel is already beginning to feel pressure from the imperious Bishop of Suffolk (Lynn Mathis) to "put on a show--as a priest, that's your job." The Bishop is irked by reports of Lionel's half-hearted performance of Anglican rituals. Once the zealous Terry enters the fray, a battle over the tenure of Lionel becomes an excruciatingly detailed, intimate look at the conflict between traditionalism and progressivism that wracks many Christian denominations.

Frankly, Racing Demon would benefit from being trimmed by about 30 minutes. Perhaps to avoid an atmosphere of clinical debate over some pretty abstract issues, Hare decided to incorporate a subplot about a reporter (R. Kevin Morris) from the Sunday tabloids attempting to blackmail the Reverend Harry about his homosexuality. The Church of England's grudging acceptance of homosexuality (male-to-male genital contact is not a sin "under certain circumstances") is a flimsy lid over the enormous discomfort many church leaders feel about it. The introduction of a ruthless reporter is a distracting device to incorporate the secular world; surely tension over Harry's sexuality could be generated by keeping his saga within a church milieu.

And Hare gives the crusading Lionel Espy an ignored, embittered wife named Heather (Adair Ahrens) to show the personal toll his humanitarian agenda has taken. But as written here, Heather is an afterthought, a cipher, a straw spouse granted none of the complexity of the male leads. She's not even allowed the vivid inner turmoil with which Hare endows the curate Terry's ex-girlfriend Frances (Mindi Penn) and Harry's irate Welsh lover Ewan (David Goodwin). Her role should've been either greatly expanded or struck from the script; it tinctures the grand ambitions of this cosmic argument with banal domestic drama.

Nonetheless, David Hare maps out a series of invigorating, impressively unbiased ideological battles, and Theatre Three lowers well-trained thespian soldiers into the fracas. As the controversial Espy, Hugh Feagin displays an admirably light touch with a character who's supposed to spend a lot of time brooding; he opts for an authentic but appropriately weary pleasantness, with cracks displaying the molten thoughts underneath. Ashley Woode is simply smashing as the evangelical usurper Terry; he grounds his fervor in an empathetic, paved-with-good-intentions delivery that prevents the character from coming across as a young reactionary. As Lionel's sardonic gay supporter, Reverend Harry, Terry Vandivort is an arch delight with a gooey center; his deflation from confident church player to frightened exile is poignant.

Racing Demon is epic in not only length, but intent. It's the kind of observant social drama--an unraveling of the personal and the political--for which people rarely go to the theater anymore. Bring a patient mind, and your heart will be rewarded.

Racing Demon runs through November 2. Call 871-3300.

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Jimmy Fowler