Between a Stone and a Hard Place: "Altar Call," at the District Theatre through December 9 Print
Theatre - Reviews
Written by Thom White   
Monday, 03 December 2012 06:00

Angela Rathman in Altar CallWhile the story would benefit from more attention to how and when plot points should unfold, and some of the dialogue would benefit from a greater awareness of how people actually speak, I quite liked the themes that author Melissa McBain explores in Altar Call.

Currently being staged at the District Theatre, McBain’s drama wrestles with the church’s response to homosexuality, particularly in a world where what was once considered sin is increasingly accepted in mainstream society. What is the church to do with this change in perception? As with divorce, interracial marriage, and women’s roles in the church, should church bodies redefine biblical standards on gay relationships? McBain provides possible answers to these questions by using scripture itself, and making her points by focusing heavily on the homosexual undertones of Jonathan’s relationship with David. ("Your [Jonathan's] love to me [David] was more wonderful than the love of women.”)

The play finds Baptist minister Silas Elmore (Jerry Wolking) feeling the need to help his grandson, John Stone (Bobby Duncalf), overcome his attraction to men, which Silas handles in a very embarrassing, condescending way. He also faces a widening split in his church's changing stances on homosexuality, and director Bryan Woods handles this story of the Elmore family with care – at least until the final scenes, in which McBain makes her points a bit too pointed.

Wolking, here, is so convincing as a pastor that I briefly considered asking him which church he serves in so I could hear him preach on Sundays. The actor delivers the confident countenance and passion of a minister while also presenting him as a credible human being, one with authority and, at times, anger bubbling under the surface when dealing with his family. And as Silas' wife Ruth, Liz Blackwell is a perfect match for Wolking, exuding the matriarchal poise and patience of a pastor’s wife of many years.

Altar Call, however, is told through the voice of the Elmores' daughter Maggie, who oftentimes speaks directly to the audience. (Not often enough, however, for the tale to cohesively be her own.) Portraying Maggie, Angela Rathman nicely balances loyalty to family and conflicting personal convictions, frequently rebelling against the family’s standards through such acts as drinking wine while discussing personal views that conservative churchgoers might find offensive. Rathman’s Maggie clearly loves her father and her gay son, but also makes mistakes in her efforts to protect John, with the guilt on Rathman's face registering as authentic and stirring. And while the second-act introduction of Maggie’s strained relationship with her husband arrives out of left field – it would benefit from clearer allusions to it in Act I – Patrick Gimm’s performance as Dr. Alan Stone is commendable for his commanding demeanor mixed with cold, angry contempt.

McBain’s play does seem to approach possibly offensive territory in the relationship between the church’s adult music minister, Matt Jones (Nicholas Waldbusser), and John, who is still a minor. Fortunately, whether by McBain's design or Woods' careful handling of the characters' affinity for each other, Matt is clearly not a pedophile, and John’s infatuation with this man – possibly the only other gay man that John knows – is not reciprocated. Instead, Waldbusser’s Matt maintains an affinity for the boy that’s unquestionably an understanding and platonic affection. Thankfully, the actors also avoid caricature, not playing their sexuality over-the-top, but instead presenting realistic people who are dedicated to the church but also (in Matt's case) suppressing or (in John's case) opening up about their sexual feelings.

Yet my main concern with the District Theatre’s production lies – as it has other times this year – with the show's age-inappropriate casting, particularly in regard to Wolking. While his performance is notable, he’s clearly too young to be Rathman’s father, and the age difference between Wolking and Blackwell turns Ruth into a major cougar. On Friday, this issue actually proved so problematic that I found myself having to constantly remind myself about the characters’ relationships to one another. (“Wait. Is Silas Maggie’s husband? Son? No, he’s her father … .”)

Still, I liked McBain’s exploration of an important, contemporary theme, and also admired the way she avoids making Christians (by way of Pastor Stone) “the bad people”; in Altar Call, they're just people who need to alter the way they treat members of the gay community, and McBain's arguments for that action are presented in a heartfelt way. Woods, too, handles McBain’s points with respect for both sides of the argument, while the District Theatre’s production itself proves a respectful depiction of a valuable lesson in interpersonal relations.

 

Altar Call runs at the District Theatre (1611 Second Avenue, Rock Island) through December 9, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)235-1654 or visiting DistrictTheatre.com.