Stories about the culture wars usually make we weep. Still, Eric Coble’s Southern Rapture, now playing at Stages Repertory Theatre, is first and foremost a comedy. Face it, theater people who will go down for their convictions and a bunch of uptight southern church people in the same room can be funny.
Southern Rapture is based on the saga of the Charlotte Repertory Theatre’s 1996 production of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer price winning epic, Angels in America. A seven second full frontal nude scene, crucial to the play’s core, set off a firestorm of controversy that put their funding and future in peril. A snarky local critic fueled the flames, inciting even more trouble. The themes of Coble’s play are also especially timely in light of recent southern-born silliness in the headlines.
The cast has a blast with this material. Sally Edmundson, as artisic director Marjorie Winthrop, is spot-on. If ever there was an archetype of a stubborn theater maven, Edmundson is it. Rutherford Cravens is terrific as Mayor Winston Paxton, the guy that just wants all the fuss to just go away. Unfortunately, the Mayor has an election coming up, so he needs to cave into his base. Sounds oddly familiar. Cravens captures the man on an ideological edge with a robust performance.
Pamela Vogel inhabits each of her four characters with equal gusto. She lends Allissa, the conflicted board member, a subtle turn. Vogel pulls out her comedic chops as Laverne, the churchy lady who objects to just about everything. Jon L. Egging gets to play on both sides of the aisle as the Rev. Dubree and Mickey, the actor with the scene in question. Egging steals the scene when he explains exactly why the nude scene needs to be included as written. David Wald gives Donald Sherman, Winthrop’s assistant director, an edgy quality. Wald lets us feel the edge of your seat vibe of the brouhaha. Jovan Jackson is a hoot as the southern- metaphor talking lawyer and a clueless actor.
Stages artistic director Kenn McLaughlin directs with an ear for the comedy, in an unfussy production that stays focused on the characters and their compelling narrative. (McLaughlin has weathered through a controversy or two on his own stomping ground. I am still recovering from the talk-back trauma after Mr. Marmalade.)
Kirk Markley’s set consists of several interlocking platforms that produce a wretched sound when yanked apart, which happens in the opening moments of the play. Although the raised platforms create a bit of a hazard for the actors, it’s an effective visual metaphor for the divisions of territory and thought that play out during the course of Coble’s story. Chris Bakos’ sound design works well in conjunction with Markley’s puzzle set. Listen up people, if you ever wondered what an ideological divide sounds like, this is it.
Back to weeping, there’s that too. In the play’s final moments, each character sums up the experience. And we finally get to see the scene that set the town on fire. In a low light, it’s played out with utmost dignity. I had a little fantasy of some hard core religious Charlotte folk coming to see this play and becoming transformed by the power of theater. Coble lets us dwell in dreaming that such a thing is possible. -Nancy Wozny