Los Angeles dramatist David Rambo (his real name) describes his discovery of a televangelist's audio technician as the missing link in his three-character play this way: "The heavens opened -- so to speak. I realized I had a trinity: the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost!"
But in his play God's Man in Texas, which is being performed at Florida Stage, technician Hugo Taney is a sallow, washed-out, born-again Everyman. An ex-boozer and ex-druggie who has found the Lord, Taney is recovering from everything except having been shipped home from Nam in a body bag. And as a backstage coat-holder and all-around gofer at the appropriately Texas-size, 30,000-member Rock Baptist Church, Hugo's most pressing concern is down-to-earth and human: He wants to hang on to his high job-approval rating. Distantly descended from the wry narrator of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Hugo mines the play's too-long and too-talky first scene for nuggets of humor.
Never missing a beat in a role he mastered in God's Man in Texas' premiere last year at Actors Theater of Louisville (Kentucky), Bob Burrus self-deprecatingly plays against Hugo's "fried brains," thereby breathing life into an ageless stock character: the burned-out, trash-heap representative of recent American generations. He also plays against the second character in Rambo's dramaturgy, Dr. Jeremiah Mears, a fortysomething evangelist who hopes to succeed the megachurch's blow-dried, silver-maned, 81-year-old founding pastor, Dr. Phillip Gottschall.
God's Man in Texas
Florida Stage, 262 S. Ocean Blvd., Manalapan, 561-585-3433
Written by David Rambo. Directed by Stephen Rothman. Starring Bob Burrus, Robert Elliott, and William Metzo. Through April 23
Rambo calls his work "a play about the selling of religion -- and the religion of selling." Yet other than Hugo's opening shtick (which is humorously necessary to expose audience members to a world of Christian worship that most have likely only glimpsed on TV), the dramatist appears to be balancing the equities of his characters. We sense that God's Man in Texas will not offer us cardboard-cutout, stereotypical portrayals and that Rambo is not setting us up for a one-dimensional abyss of moral hypocrisy. He doesn't.
Rock Baptist Church pastor-wannabe Mears is the son of a street-corner salesman of the gospel. His father (who disappeared in the line of duty), Mears recalls, identified himself as "Christ's rabid dog," who would "bite people with the gospel." Responding to Hugo's protestation that Billy Graham "would not appreciate his crusade being called a sales trip," Mears replies: "Before he was a famous preacher, however, he did hold office as a Fuller Brush man."
Through the eyes of Hugo, we become acquainted with the business of televangelism. We learn (1) that the 10:00 service is taped and the 11:30 service is used for television "retakes"; (2) that compared to the pale and overweight Mears, his competition for the big job is "real tan" and "looks good"; and (3) that at the Rock Baptist Church, the "numbers are all." In the minister's waiting room, which serves as a combination dressing room, VIP lounge, and church office center, those numbers include attendees at each service, the sums in the offering plates, and how many walked up the aisle to accept Jesus Christ as their savior.
But despite Hugo's reminders that Mears is now in the "top Baptist church" and that he will preach in the "Super Bowl," Mears requests some quiet time to pray to a personal god who "murmurs" and is like a friend to him. By means of humorous exposition, Hugo has prepared the way for the entrance of the aging pastor Gottschall, the father figure of Rambo's artistic trinity. With a midriff "like steel," the octogenarian fitness buff still is very much in charge of the Rock Baptist Church (or the RBC, as it's known), along with the RBC College, the RBC Symphony Orchestra, the RBC Voices of Jubilee, and "America's mightiest pipe organ."
But Gottschall has his own share of stress and some anxiety about his job. The search for his successor was authorized by the elders of the "multimillion-dollar operation," not by the founding pastor. And according to tradition, Baptist pastors are not allowed to choose who succeeds them in their pulpit. Says playwright Rambo: "The story is about a power struggle and so is the Bible."
Rambo describes Act One as his "Old Testament"; Act Two is his "New Testament." By contrasting players in a struggle for succession, Rambo deftly shoehorns biblical theology into the play. In Mears' first sermon, we hear the essence of the Old Testament: A single god intervenes in the individual lives, as well as the collective saga, of his chosen people. In the play's lengthy 75-minute first act, Mears preaches three more sermons. Yet though these prepared texts are enhanced by the rolling thunder of rich biblical language, one, possibly two, of these sermons could be substantially trimmed, even eliminated. Another good reason for some cutting is that in his only sermon, the patriarch pastor Gottschall pretty much steals the show. Defiantly quoting from a famous Ecclesiastes passage, Gottschall unequivocally is not going easy into the sweet night of retirement.
During intermission Jerry Mears becomes the chosen successor to Gottschall, who informs him: "You are now one of the stars in the firmament of our denomination." Not surprisingly clashes crop up between the new co-pastors, ranging from the names on their parking places and Mears' objections to "spikes" (people planted in the audience, who during the service charge up the aisle to "receive Christ") to Gottschall's assertion that church services "are not a matter of messages, but a matter of demographics!"
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The comedy turns to drama. Gottschall administers, and Mears ministers -- especially to a woman looking for Hugo Taney, whose name she has seen as a credit in one of the Rock Baptist Church's television broadcasts. Then, in the most arresting scene of the play, Mears turns into a father figure for Hugo. Gottschall misinterprets their relationship as a conspiracy against him and discharges Hugo from his job.
God's Man in Texas is an exceedingly powerful and moving play about lifting up the human condition of Everyman. It contrasts the characters' experiences of evil. Mears "feels your pain." For him evil is transitional to healing and exorcising psychological wounds. As a recovering substance abuser, Hugo must either name his demon in order to separate himself from his alter fiend of addiction or perish. And Gottschall turns to scapegoating and paranoia. Ultimately Gottschall's view of moral evil is not the absence of good in a divinely created world but rather the absence of Gottschall from his pulpit.
From almost every angle the play succeeds, beginning with the direction of Stephen Rothman. The performances by Bob Burrus as Hugo, Robert Elliott as Mears, and William Metzo as Gottschall create an aura of a much larger ensemble cast, and they play it for laughs and fears with equal facility. And the stunning set almost qualifies as another character. A thick, gold metallic cross cantilevered over the entire stage; apocalyptic clouds swirling on the walls; and a plastic floor painted with gold automobile paint, evoke the tinseled, '50s Gothic-modern architecture of suburban American churches. And set designer Klara Zieglorova not only maintains the tabernaclelike intimacy of the Florida Stage performance space but also graciously, fluidly, and economically accommodates the waiting room, the pulpit, and the campus of Gottschall College within the single set.
Like the best of modern art, which reconfigures our perceptions, God's Man in Texas is sui generis -- a modern allegorical morality play in which form and content interact in an adept jumble of comedy, drama, and gentle and biting satire. And because of the redemptive convictions of the characters (that as flawed as they may be, God will still save them), the drama cannot be a tragedy.