Edinburgh, Scotland -- Rain has dampened some of the outrageousness of the tone and mood of the festivities of the Fringe Festival here in Edinburgh. The folks who have done this for years say they don't remember ever having had this much rain. There's as much talk of the weather as there is of the theater right now.
Knowing there was another theater production from Pasadena, CA, we braved the crowds that emerged in a brief respite from the rain and found Paradise in Augustine's, Venue 152, which is where The Presentment plays here through August 29, 2011. Written and directed by D. Paul Thomas, I mused about just how far same-sex themes have come in 5 or 10 years. Was I really thinking, "ho hum, another 'coming-out' play?" Whoa! Hey, I can't help those errant thoughts that waft through my head. But really, ground-breaking revelations about one's sexuality were once thought to be shocking and daring and new... well, at least in California we are used to people coming out of the closet, and out of the wings of theaters. And looking at The Presentment cast photo, there again was that all-too-typical female low employment casting ratio in evidence: 2 women, 4 men. Another thought entered my mind: "yet another writer who unconsciously or consciously finds women less important than men."
So let's just say that my frame of mind was not super-open when we sat down to watch The Presentment. How lovely to be taken in and swept away by theater, despite skepticism, and thus the magic of theater through The Presentment sent my petty thoughts scurrying. I highly recommend The Presentment although I suspect that its audiences will be mostly comprised of people open to the message. How I would love this show to play throughout areas that aren't "the choir" but rather the persecutors and haters of those who are different.
The promotional materials for the Hollywood Hills Production of The Presentment say "family, faith and the challenging choices of love..." which is accurate, but I would add the death throes of familial and institutional patriarchy and the high cost of alcohol abuse are themes that are just as important in The Presentment, even if not underlined.
The Jennings family, headed up by Rev. Samuel Jennings (D. Paul Thomas) is in trouble largely because they are blind to their own addictions, whether that's alcohol or white straight male domination by default. The Rev. Jennings has lost his pastoral position because he's a drunk and, as far as I could tell, Eleanor Jennings (Mary Chalon) his steadfast wife of 40 years also has a severe drinking problem.
Eleanor and Samuel decide to stay overnight at Michael and Rebecca Jenning's apartment overlooking Central Park. The action takes place on the eve of the heresy trial (a.k.a. "the presentment") that's convened to defrock the Rev. David Thomas (Gary Clemmer) for presiding over same-sex marriages within the church. Rev. Thomas is gay, but the church is going after him by accusing him of not only unauthorized same-sex unions but being a non-celibate gay man; the celibate loophole would allow him to stay frocked.
Eleanor and Samuel's son Michael Jennings (Nathan Wetherington) is apparently an alcoholic and unemployed. Michael's wife Rebecca, (Nicole Gabriella Scipione) is pregnant and also the bread-winner in the family. I kept wondering why the heck, if they can afford to live in a $3,000,000 Central Park view apartment with at least 3 bedrooms, is Rebecca donning her apron, cleaning up, preparing meals and behaving very much like a 50s housewife? She must be exhausted! Michael apparently does nothing other than drink and be an unemployed actor... and therein lies an entirely different drama which niggled at me throughout. Perfect wife/saint stereotype aside, Rebecca is liberated enough to be the only voice in The Presentment who suggests that maybe God might be a "she," is well aware of sex discrimination in the workplace, and is pro-inclusion. Very progressive thinking from someone who is as retro as she is, and a relief for me as an audience member to have the "when God was a woman" point of view at least nodded to.
The plot involves hidden homosexuality within the Jennings family and not wanting to be a "spoiler," let me just say that it's heartbreaking and understandable why the Jennings want to drown their sorrows in booze. Sharing their posh Central Park view apartment is the former organist of Rev. Jenning's parish, Jonathan Malone (Preston Vanderslice), an openly gay man who is tired of pretending and placating. He's very sick. He's also a long-standing friend of the entire Jennings family, having not only played the organ at the church but being a part of the family, literally and figuratively.
The play is as strong as the cast. Rev. Jennings is the kind of man who turned me off to organized religion years ago; bombastic, blind and in love with his own voice, he's the kind of character we love to hate. I would definitely join Rev. Thomas congregation, not a Jennings parish. However, the character I was most rooting for, and am grateful to the playwright for creating, is the dutiful pastor's wife beautifully played by Mary Chalon. When I was growing up, it was often the pastor's wife who humanized the church experience for me. That role, "pastor's wife," was often taken for granted, under-appreciated and integral to a successful congregation. Now, thank goodness, pastor's wives can become pastors themselves. In The Presentment it is Eleanor who finally provides the moral compass for the Jennings family to stop lying, and for her husband, the Rev. Jennings to possibly get off his high horse as prosecutor of the Rev. Thomas. She not only tells him off and threatens to leave him but, at one point, hauls off and slaps him. Who but the priest's wife knows just how utterly human a priest is?
This production is really good; kudos to producers Margaret Sedenquist and Deborah Thomas. And wow: D. Paul Thomas, playwright, director and star! If I were him, I'd write this play for myself, although he didn't play the Rev. Samuel Jennings in the original production at the Pasadena Playhouse. All the cast is really strong. (Hey, D. Paul! How about a spin-off for Rebecca and Eleanor?)
My greatest hope is that The Presentment has a life outside Pasadena or Edinburgh. Small towns need to see locally grown productions of this show, a kind of ecclesiastical Laramie Project, Long Day's Journey into Night, Boys in the Band -- or in this case, Boys in the Choir and Sacristy. The days where white straight men tell us all who God is, or isn't, are hopefully screeching to a halt. This is also a time where fundamentalism and strict orthodoxy will get nastiest. So women, gay folks, people of color and everyone else who has been systematically excluded from formal religion: strap in, because it's gonna be a rough flight... but well worth the trip.
Meanwhile, my show, Now That She's Gone, a romp through sex, drugs and Eleanor Roosevelt, continues at the Assembly Hall, Baillie Room, 5:30 p.m. daily. We'd love to see you there!