The Crusade of Connor Stephens by Dewey Moss
The Jerry Orbach Theater at 50th and Broadway
BSonArts Rating: B
Show-Score Rating: 80
If timing has any influence on the success of a serious drama, “The Crusade of Connor Stephens” has certainly found the right moment for its off-Broadway reincarnation. It opens on the eve of the US Supreme Court agreeing to hear a case that purports that selling a cake for a gay wedding is a religious act. “Crusade” is about preaching hate and the way it destroys families, and in this play, lives.
Set in the sticks of Texas, Kris and Jim Jr. have lost their young daughter to a deranged teenage gunman who sees his religion as not just accepting but advocating violence against gay people, ending “sin” before it will infect others. It’s the day of the funeral and Kris and Jim’s families have gathered, some willingly, some obligingly. These families are torn apart by their beliefs and their loyalties. Jim Jr’s father, Big Jim, is a holy roller Baptist minister who has turned his church into a commercial operation and demands from his followers an acceptance of his distortions of scripture, and his wife is follower #1. Jim Sr’s mother knows there is more than just religion driving her preacher son as Kris’ sister and brother-in-law demand respect for the grieving couple and their loss.
Playwright Dewey Moss has crafted a very complex and illuminating family drama about acceptance, loss, religion, and hate. Every week we hear of another “red state” effort to limit the freedoms of LGBT people, but Moss shows us what those efforts mean at the ground level – how families are torn apart, how people lose their friends and siblings, and, most profoundly, how the innocent become the victims. The play cunningly reveals each character’s values and builds to a climax that forces each to take action. But this is not a play with happy endings; the characters do not go through catharsis. The New York audience just leaves with a portrait of how those “those people” live.
In many ways, “Crusade” and the recently closed “Sweat,” by Lynn Nottage, are complimentary views of Trump’s America. Nottage focused on the troubles of the working class; Moss shows us the power and destructiveness of those who believe the first amendment empowers them to govern others with their religion. Both playwrights are not interested in the politics; they want to show us the people and the extremes to which they are driven.
However, the current production does not fully realize the potential of the play. James Kiberd gives a terrifying performance as Big Jim and Kathleen Huber gives warm dimension to the stereotypical portrait of the wise elder in a wheel chair. Ben Curtis as Jim Jr. gives a convincing performance as a father in shock, but his role is also about a man who is torn between family and identity, a core insight in this play. That struggle is never revealed until the end, presumably because the actor and director felt that internalizing that conflict was a function of his loss. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast falls somewhere between competent and community theatre. In addition, Mr. Moss’ direction once again demonstrates that playwrights should let someone else direct their works. Much of the staging is awkward and potentially meaningful pauses lack significance. The script builds to a rather emotional climax, but Mr. Moss has not controlled the rhythms of the buildup to maximum effect.
This production is still worth seeing for a New York audience, and not just New York’s faithful queer audience. No number of New York Times editorials can give us the sense of the people behind these conflicting beliefs and values. Mr. Moss clearly knows these people and understands the complexities of their existence. Too frequently we think they are simple people and their beliefs are designed to keep them that way. But Moss shows us the struggle of a gay man to keep his family and his sexual identity; a preacher’s wife who has been lead into darkness; in-laws who only want their families to coexist; and, yes, a preacher’s mother whose wisdom goes beyond the scripture. We need to understand these people if we hope to “crusade against hate.”