A Brave, Beautiful Look into the Heart of America
The internet has many definitions for the word crusade.
- v. lead or take part in an energetic and organized campaign concerning a social, political, or religious issue.
- n. an organized campaign concerning a political, social, or religious issue, typically motivated by a fervent desire for change.
-n. a war instigated by the Church for alleged religious ends.
A Hawaii Premiere straight from New York, Dewey Moss' The Crusade of Connor Stephens has just opened at TAG- The Actor's Group in Dole Cannery. This family-centered drama explores many issues and elements, including our nation's gun violence crisis, religious intolerance, and LGBT issues, among others. Moss makes it clear in his playwright's note that this play may include all of those things, but it is mainly about "a family in spiritual crisis who misses the opportunity to heal by putting aside hateful differences and loving more." Thus, that's where the heart, soul, and strength lies within this play- the Williamson family.
The tone is somber as the play opens in present day Texas. A picture of a smiling little girl is on the wall, yet everyone is melancholy and wearing very dark formal clothes. There has been a death in the family. Through carefully chosen and layered dialogue, the details unfold before the audience. Jim Jr. and Kris have lost their daughter, Tess, in a shooting. The press is outside. Jim Jr.'s family gets dropped off, but his father is running late. The little Throughout all of this, there is a veil of politeness as the two families are tense and uncomfortable. Then, we meet Big Jim, Jim Jr.'s Baptist father and preacher, as well as Kris, Jim Jr.'s husband. The play explores how each family feels about each other in beautiful detail, and also explores the consequences of Big Jim perhaps setting the young Connor Stephens, Tess's suicide shooter who also shot Kris, on the way of his dark, religiously fueled path.
Director Alan Shepard has assembled a very human cast. A testament to the ensemble's fantastic acting skills, there are no characters or caricatures present in this story, nor is there room for any. Each actor looks and feels plausible, like we would know someone like them. Justin Strain's Jim Jr. mourns quietly and takes everything in with a stern, strong look while his husband, Kris (Thomas Smith) is more reactive, extreme, and endearing, proving a wonderful balance between the married couple. Eli K.M. Foster's ferocious, bombastic, and nuanced Big Jim preaches both loud and soft, and commands a presence that must have been terrifying and stifling for young Jim Jr. to live through. At his side are Marianne, played with beautiful indecision and conflict by Amy K. Sullivan, and his mother Grandma Vivi'n, who Ann Brandman portrays with a delightful sense of honesty, brevity, and frankness; Moss places Grandma Vivi'n's lines well in between the drama-laden scenes. The Jones', Kimmy and Bobby, played by Amrita Malik and Berkley Spivy are spot on as supportive in-laws, caught between trying to keep everyone leveled but also being driven by a taste for justice and equality. Jesee Mumma's Dean Taylor is a friend of the family's that is keenly aware of the implications of Connor's motivations, and is rightly fearful in taking his time to divulge them. Rounding out the cast are two journalists who really add to the environment, pestering anyone entering or exiting the house with questions. Victoria Brown-Wilson was one, but unfortunately the other is not listed in the program.
The set is simple, almost stark. An intentional choice by Shepard and Scenic Designer/Dresser Paul Yau, this makes the already intimate space inescapable. The audience has no safe zone to look at while the explosive family drama boils over around them, and are forced to watch these hearts bleed with sorrow and anger. Chris Valles nails everyone's looks quite well, and the lighting design by Charles Wade and Chris Teves is simple as well- bringing everything back to the family on-stage. These technical elements all work very well together, almost unnoticeable to a degree, and to that I think they are successful, as anything sticking out would immediately drag the audience out of the world.
The Crusade of Connor Stephens is heavy, dramatic, and important. I had sat between two older gentlemen when I attended- one, during intermission, loved the play but asked a lot of questions for clarity because his hearing was going a little. The other, to my right, seemed very perturbed by the play, outright saying he hated it. Those may not be the best words to hear, but this play does stir up a variety of reactions, and it's good he had such a strong one. Ultimately, I think one of the strengths of the production is getting the audience to feel; by confronting hard issues and listening to difficult discussions and not being able to withdraw when you start to feel uneasy, you push past the uncomfortable feeling into a well of more emotions. This well may be different for everyone- you may find it tasting very bitter, like the man to my right, or you may find yourself crying, like I did. Either way, The Crusade of Connor Stephens is quite the journey, and you should see it while it is still running at TAG.
The Crusade of Connor Stephens is running at TAG: The Actor's Group at Dole Cannery through August 26. Showtimes are 7:30pm for Thursday-Saturday, and Sunday shows are at 2:00pm. For tickets and availability, visit https://fareharbor.com/tag/items/82776/.