A newsreel about faith-based adoption restrictions on Jewish, Muslim and interfaith couples in the state of Texas plays somberly over a smooth jazz gospel concert at the start of The Crusade of Connor Stephens, a new play by Dewey Moss. In between the voices of newsreaders decrying the discriminatory new laws and the gospel choir, an evangelist preacher calls for us to repent our sins and come into the light of the Lord Our God. It’s enough to make a New York audience gag.
Crusade, which Moss also directed, begins with the revelation that a horrifying tragedy involving gun violence has occurred, wreaking havoc on the emotional lives of a Texas family. Jim Jr. is being comforted by his sister-in-law Kimmy (Julie Campbell) and her husband, Bobby (Jacques Mitchell), in the former’s house. As they fuss over him, Jim Jr.’s mother Marianne (Katherine Leask) and Grandma Viv’in (a magnificent Kathleen Huber) pay them an awkward visit—it seems that an earlier incident has estranged Jim Jr. from his fundamentalist Christian family. To reveal more would be unfair—although one shouldn’t wait for the title character to appear; like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Connor Stephens’ presence is felt. Suffice it to say that when Jim Jr.’s father, the commanding Southern Baptist minister Big Jim, arrives, a fascinating study in moral relationship dynamics ensues.
James Kiberd as the patriarch is wonderful. His Big Jim exudes that magnetism so particular to those proselytizing Southern Baptist church leaders; think Billy Graham, but if he had requested a few shades darker on the tanning machine. He has the disarming brilliant smile, the charismatic strut and that unnecessarily polysyllabic, yet somehow still enticing, Southern drawl. Kiberd does not make Big Jim a caricature of the televangelist—that would be too easy on his audience. Instead, he endows Big Jim with surprising nuance and even sympathy. His performance is not overwhelming, as some of his real-life counterparts tend to be as they roar out Bible verses from the tops of pulpits, but measured. His best moments come from his interactions with his family and especially with Bobby, a nonbeliever.
An interesting, if subtler, aspect of Crusade emerges in its attempts to reconcile differing levels of faith (or lack thereof). Mitchell’s Bobby is the most recognizable; he scoffs and rolls his eyes at Big Jim’s impromptu sermons and bristles at any offending word against Jim Jr. Moss, as director, has cleverly made him the conduit through which the audience can begin to grasp the intense and overriding faith some people can have in God. Through Bobby one begins to understand, if not excuse, Big Jim’s zealotry.
The positioning of the players at certain points in the play is a master class in stage direction. All the action takes place in the living room of Jim Jr.’s house, which he shares with his partner, Kris, but the spaces that Big Jim and Marianne leave in between them and their son might as well be acres. The two are often literally on the same side, of the room and of any family argument, while Jim Jr. and his friends are on the other, sitting by a pastel-colored couch and bouquets of flowers that don’t necessarily imitate the character’s gloomier sentiments. (James Noone is responsible for scenic design.)
The ending is a touch too facile; what had been an hour and 45 minutes of carefully layered exposition and a study in familial relationships takes a surprising turn toward sentimentality. When the play begins to massage our ideological fantasies of who should “win” the moral war in the end (Big Jim or Jim Jr.) it negates the more satisfying encounters that the characters have had beforehand. This concern notwithstanding, the drama isn’t forced for much of the play, except perhaps at the end, and neither is the welcome humor.
Huber’s Grandma Viv’in gives a jolt of wit and pathos to the proceedings. Curtis, playing the sorrowing father of a loved one lost to gun violence, gives an appropriately sympathetic performance. Moss has crafted an adequate, well-worded response to the country’s ongoing debate on gun violence, but inflects it with just enough religiosity and jingoistic fervor (via Big Jim) to let us know exactly whom to root for. In the end, such quibbles are for naught, because the hard eventuality of a shooting, be it in the real world or on the stage, is that no one wins.
The Crusade of Connor Stephens plays at the Jerry Orbach Theater at The Theater Center (210 West 50th St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Sunday and Monday and 8 p.m. Tuesday, and Thursday through Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets, priced at $59, are available by visiting Ticketmaster.com or by calling (212) 921-7862.