Stage: Wednesday, September 8, 2004
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Vince Davis, Hugh Feagin, and Bill Jenkins in Circle Theatre’s latest.
God’s Man in Texas
Thru Sept 18, at Circle Theatre, 230 W 4th St. $15-25. 817-877-3040.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Godspell

Circle Theatre’s latest production divines secular pursuits from spiritual callings.

By JIMMY FOWLER

In author’s notes available on his web site, playwright David Rambo reminds people of the universal themes contained in the microcosmic Southern Baptist world of his play God’s Man in Texas. His script “is rooted in the truth that the succession of a leader in any large organization — especially a mega-church such as my fictional Houston Rock Baptist Church — rarely goes smoothly.” He reminds us that “not every CEO stays on top” and “princes who become kings may abdicate their thrones.”

Fair (and self-evident) enough, but it’s unlikely that God’s Man in Texas would have enjoyed such national stage success without the particulars of televangelism, congregation-as-corporation, and the Texas fusion of religious and political power. The theater world overflows with sagas of embattled emperors and almost as many indictments of business ambition run amok. What audiences rarely get to see is a vitriolic struggle between two charismatic ministers, in which the very definition of how God speaks to the faithful is at stake — for the internationally renowned, fake congregation of Houston Rock, at least.

Luckily, Circle Theatre and director Rene Moreno have not drifted from theological concerns in their compelling production of God’s Man in Texas. If Moreno and his stellar cast of three hadn’t taken seriously a major question at the show’s core — to believers, does God speak in a whisper or a roar? — the show might have been merely an amusing, well-constructed string of anecdotes about eccentric Southern Baptists, with strong similarities to the power struggles of the early ‘90s within the huge and wealthy First Baptist Church of Dallas to lure the curious. It evolves into something considerably more resonant than that and offers material for reflection far outside the Baptist crowd.

For nonbelievers who don’t care tromp through the muck of divisive liturgical arcana, Circle Theatre’s version of God’s Man still works as a serious-minded comedy. Houston Rock Baptist Church, with its adjoined university campus, tv studio, family cineplex, and bowling alleys, has connections that reach beyond its regular flock; Billy Graham and the Bush men, both 41 and 43, have been known to pop in for surprise appearances. The church’s 80-year-old lion-in-winter, Dr. Phillip Gotschall (Hugh Feagin), still growls with health, thanks to the regimen of bee pollen and prunes suggested to him by Ronald Reagan. “I’ve got the prostate of a man half your age!” he declares with typical boisterousness upon meeting Dr. Jerry Mears (Bill Jenkins), a soft-spoken but accomplished fortysomething pastor from San Antonio. Mears has been invited to guest-preach a series of sermons. He understands why Houston Rock is called “the Super Bowl of Baptist preachers” — he’d been awed by the blustery, telegenic legend of Gotschall since before he was led into the Baylor seminary by his wayward father, a salesman and part-time soul-saver. In one of the show’s many intriguing thematic tensions, that unseen father and Gotschall seem to vie for greater influence at the very edge of Mear’s consciousness.

Dr. Gotschall brags about how he has eyes all over his sprawling church, and none are sharper than those of jittery wisecracker Hugo Taney (Vince Davis), the church’s head A/V technician and Gotschall’s personal assistant. Taney learns that Mears has been selected by a search committee whose members are interested in the younger, introspective preacher for more than a guest slot. The Nixonian Gotschall, increasingly obsessed with “whispers and secrets,” selects a startled Mears as Houston Rock’s co-pastor, creating another throne to secure his own. Things don’t work out so neatly, as their dramatically divergent approaches to God result in a battle for the televangelic spotlight and, inadvertently, the fate of Hugo.

Circle Theatre maintains an impressively subtle balance throughout God’s Man in Texas. This production never mocks or condemns people of faith, but it does reflect an urgent concern about the role of money, fame, and ego in something so highly personal as spirituality. Director Moreno has cast the roles with three stage veterans, and this quartet clearly knows when irony is an effective moral tool and when it becomes a petty weapon. The actors wring plenty of laughs — and a few cringes — from the dialogue without distancing themselves from the characters. As Gotschall, Hugh Feagin lacks the booming, plangent tones that flourish so naturally in Bill Jenkins, who plays Mears. But Feagin underscores a ruthless side so well that his vocal inadequacy makes Gotschall’s self-made-man mythology even more convincing — here’s a man who wouldn’t recognize any obstacle on his journey to pulpit fame. Jenkins masters a humility that rings false at just the right moments during the play’s second half; he’s less the show’s conscience than it’s conflicted consciousness. Vince Davis, as the weasel-y but sympathetic Hugo Taney, plays the Fool to Feagin’s Lear as a truth-telling laugh-getter, but he also provides a very human grounding for some of the abstract talk about communicating with God. Taney, a recovering addict always on the verge of a slip, needs Houston Rock more desperately than either Gotschall or Mears does. God’s Man in Texas is about how people listen for God in their crisis moments — and whether they ever hear what they want.


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