Fathers and sons are often at loggerheads in real life, and almost always in the theater. Thus it is with Big Jim, a fire-and-brimstone-preaching rural Texas Southern Baptist minister (bearing at least a passing resemblance to "God Hates Fags" preacher Fred Phelps), and his son Jim Jr., who is gay, married to another man, and mourning the death of a young daughter, the victim of a shooting at her school.
That's the setup for Dewey Moss's The Crusade of Connor Stephens, a play that comes roaring out the gate like a bull let loose from its corral, tearing up the stage at the Jerry Orbach Theater for two fiery hours before sending us off to think (a lot) about what we have borne witness to.
Before the evening is up, we will be faced with so much dirty family linen that we sometimes will want to close our eyes on the proceedings. More sadly, it is the sort of dirt that seems to be showing up with greater frequency these days as xenophobia in its many guises has become increasingly in-your-face visible on a regular, often violent basis. So, even though Mr. Moss proffers some hope for humane redemption, such redemption is couched realistically in small amounts, with no phony reconciliation to wrap things up on a cheery note.
The play unfolds at the home of Jim Jr. (Ben Curtis) and his husband Kris (Alec Shaw), as they are preparing for the funeral of their daughter. Jim Jr. is clearly in a state of shock, hardly able to speak as his sister-in-law Kimmy (Julie Campbell) bustles around in preparation for any visitors who might come prior to the service. Kris is in the bedroom, lying down and recovering not only from his own horrific emotional trauma, but from actual physical trauma. He, too, was shot in the incident, perpetrated by the title character, a family acquaintance who acted on the deep-seated conviction that the shooting was a "crusade" against sin. (And guess where he got that idea.).
Although the play doesn't say, it's likely that Jim Jr. and Kris would have at least a small circle of friends or decent-minded neighbors who would show up to offer their condolences. But everyone is staying away, because the house is surrounded by reporters waiting for some sort of statement regarding the shooting. The only ones who come, apart from Kimmy and her husband Bobby (Jacques Mitchell), are Jim Jr's folks -- his Grandma Vivi'n (Kathleen Huber), his mother Marianne (Katherine Leask), and, of course, Big Jim himself (James Kiberd), the personification of that snorting bull and self-proclaimed man of God.
Big Jim dominates the room, as Mr. Kiberd dominates the stage, every moment he is present. He is a father for whom love is always conditional, requiring absolute obeisance to his narcissism in exchange for even a begrudging bit of affection. At best, he attempts to keep a relatively civil tongue in his head, although that effort falls by the wayside more than once. What love and support Jim Jr. receives comes from Kimmy and Bobby and Grandma. No conditions on their love.
There is much to despise about Big Jim, and as the play progresses, he lives down to your lowest expectations of him. And Mr. Kiberd absolutely mines the role for all it's worth, turning him into a truly despicable villain.
But you might want to spend more of your time studying Grandma Vivi'n and, especially, Marianne. Because they are the most fully developed characters, both so well portrayed by Ms. Huber and Ms. Leask, respectively.
Grandma, who is in a wheelchair and walks haltingly with a cane, clearly is dependent on her son and daughter-in-law, and feels quite frustrated as a result. We cheer, as we ought, when she dismisses their holier-than-thou attitudes in order to show her support and love to Jim Jr.
What is more interesting, it seems to me, is the formality of the way she addresses Kris, and even Kimmy, of whom she quickly takes a liking. In her manner, you can see the layers of old Southern politesse with which she was raised, adding a richness of credibility to her character as being someone more than the prototypical feisty old lady.
Even more compelling, however, is the character of Marianne. As portrayed by Ms. Leask, Jim Jr's mother is by far the most complex character. It would be easy to dismiss her as merely an appendage of her overbearing husband, but she reveals depths to her personality, both ugly and potentially salvageable, that are hers alone. Watch her watching Big Jim as his behavior grows increasingly outrageous. Then listen to her own diatribe aimed against her son and Kris's relationship. And, finally, pay attention as she prepares to go home with Big Jim, a woman who is starting to charge and someone with much to mull over. One of the most touching moments of the play involves a brief but authentic embrace of her son and a hand reached out for just a moment to Kris.
So, yes, The Crusade of Connor Stephens, is a bit of a sledgehammer as a play, but it is equally a cri-de-coeur by the playwright, Dewey Moss, who also directs the fine company. He is a man on a mission to shine a light on LGBT issues.
[Moss's previous work, Death of the Persian Prince (reviewed HERE) dealt with an even more difficult issue, the forced sex reassignment surgery imposed on a gay Iranian man, because, by policy and religious absolutism, "there are no homosexuals in Iran"].
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