The United States of America has 120.5 guns for every 100 people. No country in the world has more guns per person than ours. U.S. citizens own 46% of all guns worldwide that are owned by a civilian, as opposed to a government. In addition, the unregistered number of guns in our country is 392,273,257.
In the context of that stark reality, the wonderfully written and acted “Church and State” currently running at the Langhorne Players could not be a more timely show.
North Carolina Senator Charles Whitmore is in the middle of a re-election campaign when the unthinkable happens. There is shooting at his children’s school, and his two boys are friends of the victims. Whitmore is a Republican. He runs on guns and Christianity and always wins. As noted by Mrs. Whitmore, there are three “F words” that matter in North Carolina, and they are faith, firearms and football. But this event has shaken him to his core. He was caught on “the Twitter,” as both he and his wife call it, questioning the existence of God and what has been his blind support to the right to bear arms. And now all hell has broken loose.
This quickly paced, funny, but literally deadly serious one act goes by in a flash. More than any other play this season, the play fulfills the theater’s mission of producing “Plays Worth Talking About.”
As Shakespeare might say, “The play’s the thing.” But unlike Hamlet, when describing play content, this is not to “catch the conscience of the king,” but to capture ours. The Pulse Night Club Shooting occurred while the play was being written in 2016. In that tragedy alone, 50 people died and 50 were injured. In 2017, the show premiered off-Broadway. Within a few weeks of its opening in March, the Cincinnati night club shooting killed two and injured 14. And this premiere at Langhorne Players occurs weeks after the El Paso, Dayton and Philadelphia shooting sprees. Sadly, this “gun show” is now more relevant than ever before.
The show is not only substantively thought-provoking, it is also very well acted. This is what every actor hopes to accomplish onstage and what every audience hopes to see: a true ensemble. The special mix of laughter, anger and tears are all there in this remarkable script by Jason Odell Williams and the story is told seamlessly by these exceptional actors. Bravo!
Todd Gregoire plays Senator Whitmore. It is difficult to portray uncertainty and to sustain anxiety. Charles Whitmore has witnessed something no one should ever have to see. As a lawmaker, he had been brought into the crime scene where all the children had been shot. He saw all the blood. He witnessed the carnage. He is not the same person he was before that moment. Gregoire navigates the waves of emotions that anyone human would feel from seeing such a horror and now, as a lawmaker, must address how to prevent something like this from happening again.
His campaign manager is Alex Klein, an ambitious political advisor. She normally is with the Democrats, but sees in Whitmore a possible presidential candidate that she would like to manage. She is played by the cool, non-plussed Lauren Suchenski. With Whitmore casting doubt on the existence of God after the shooting, she tries to contain the damage but Whitmore is not agreeable to her suggestions. He wants to operate off his conscience. Besides the candidate, she has to put up with his wife, Sara Whitmore (Tami Amici), who has a barbed comment for almost any situation. Her unbridled outspokenness has not been seen by a Southern belle since Attorney General John Mitchell’s notorious wife, Martha during the Nixon administration.
Alex plays straight man for most of Sara’s jokes. For instance, ironically, she keeps calling Alex a lesbian. Alex says she is not, but simply a New York Democrat. Sara tells her that is the “same thing.” No one delivers a throwaway punchline better than Amici. She is delightful. She is especially effective during her drunk scene. Some people are just cute when they’re smashed. The key is that it stays restrained enough to be believable in a play where the subject matter is serious.
Matthew Swanson does a great job as the campaign go-fer Tom and in a couple of other roles as Marshall the blogger, a security guy and a reporter. His slow-witted but fast-moving Tom is charming and just the right touch during some chaotic political moments in a campaign that is on the verge of a meltdown. Like a chameleon, he changes into different characters as the script requires.
Director John Bathke has assembled an unbelievably talented cast and put together a flawless production. He also is the lighting designer and helped in set construction. This has put me in awe of the man. Bathke, known for his acting skills, was seen earlier in the season at Langhorne Players in “Marjorie Prime.” Those empathetic skills that served him well as an actor are useful to him as a director. I would recommend to theatergoers that if they see Bathke at the helm, buy a ticket — you will not be disappointed. There are many reasons to see a show. Directors are one of them. Congratulations to Renaissance man Bathke for directing one of the best shows I have seen in a long time.
The show has a surprise ending that I was not prepared for. Neither was the rest of the audience. By the end of the show, we realized that we are not just audience members/spectators, we are citizens, and are responsible for what goes on in our country. I am still affected by this play. It rings true and serves up its themes with insight, a bit of humor and a lot of pathos. It serves as a warning shot and a call to action.
The show continues through Aug. 31 at the Spring Garden Mill in Tyler State Park in Newtown, and tickets are available online.