There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Questions without clear answers, observations without judgments, arguments without obvious solutions: That’s what David Hare offers in Racing Demon. And thank heaven. It is, after all, a play about religion.
About theology, to be more precise, and, to narrow the point further, about aspects of the divine. But it’s also a solid modern drama that wrestles with distinctly modern issues; like its spiritual parent, Murder in the Cathedral, it’s an ambitious, accomplished play of ideas, but its debaters trade rhetorical volleys in a world rather more concrete than the one Eliot created for his great meditation on Thomas à Becket’s martyrdom.
Concrete? Racing Demon’s milieu is as common as asphalt. Hare weaves a series of firmly argued polemics into a surprisingly involving plot that centers on a modern-day priest struggling to make his ministry relevant in a slum parish of an all but moribund Church of England. It’s a work of no little passion and frustration, and Jim Petosa’s production at the Olney Theatre is sensitive, elegantfull of grace? It will, at a minimum, draw you in and intrigue you. If you’re the sort to take religious questions to heart, you may very well find yourself moved to the core.
The lights come upbut not farat Olney on a cruciform set. The cross’s corners are marked out by soaring pillars of what looks like teak. Rows of scarlet votives flicker behind a scrim, and a textured dissonance of strings resolves into a single, sweet melody that takes on a chantlike air. It is a warm scene, softly golden, musty, and comfortingand empty, except for one man on his knees.
The Rev. Lionel Espy (Traber Burns) is praying: “God. Where are you?” Alone in his London church, alone in his spirit, he’s come to question the existence of the God he serves. He’s lost the security of faith, and now the consolation of the well-intentioned secular humanism that replaced it seems to be wearing thin as well. Much to the distress of the few older, middle-class congregants who still turn up for his services, he’s less interested in celebrating the Mass or preaching the Gospel than in sermonizing against the evils of poverty and racism. Ritual holds no comforts, as he tells his bishop (Conrad Feininger) in the next scene, not when it has so little to do with what the poorest of his parishioners face daily: “In our area, I wouldn’t even say the Church was a joke. It’s an irrelevance. It has no connection with people’s lives.”
But the bishop, a traditionalist, isn’t listening. Unconcerned himself with deep questions of faith, he’s afraid that his wayward priest isn’t observing the forms, and he’s convinced that attendance is down as a result. Espy’s inattention to the liturgy is part of an endemic genericization of the Church, the bishop believesand, as becomes clear, he means to make an example of Espy. The arrival of an energetic, evangelically bent young priest fresh out of seminary provides him with an opportunity.
Tony Ferris (a brash, earnest, appealing Christopher Lane) is bright, compassionate, and conservative about getting the word out about Christ. There’s a parishioner suffering domestic abuse? Offer her the Good News as comfort. One Christ fits all; isn’t that the essence of the Church’s message, and haven’t we strayed a bit too far from it? He thinks Lionel’s problem is that “he isn’t getting anything back. Lionel is tired because he gets no strength from the Gospel.”
Here in the U.S., we’d call Tony a fundamentalist, and he’s all too aware that stridence invites disdain in the clubby confines of the Church of England: “Like everything else in England, it turns out to be a matter of class. Educated clerics don’t like evangelicals, because evangelicals drink sweet sherry and keep budgerigars and have ducks in formations on their walls. Yes, and they also have the distressing down-market habit of trying to get people emotionally involved.”
You’d think of Tony as one of Racing Demon’s villains if Hare weren’t so scrupulous about communicating the honesty and unselfishness of his motivations. His crime is that he’s callow, too absorbed in trying to fix what he sees as wrong to ask whether his solutions are helping. It’s interesting: When he prays for help, he prays for help for “others”he honestly believes he himself is on the right track.
Tony’s vocal dissatisfaction with the parish status quo provides the excuse the bishop has needed to draw a line in the liturgical sand. In the showdown that ensues, the bishop’s rage at all things liberalFeininger turns a purple that nicely complements his episcopal fineryprovides a solid third leg for the debate; the play’s denouement manages to be intellectually invigorating and dramatically satisfying at once.
Mini-morals climb the trunk of Hare’s main existential argument: Tony’s former mistress (Carolyn Pasquantonio, seeming rather too young for her part) becomes Lionel’s champion. Lionel, looking for God, neglects his wife, Heather (Helen Hedman, a bit of a cipher, but probably because the role is underwritten). And the Rev. Harry Henderson (an appropriately wan David Bryan Jackson), Lionel and Tony’s quasi-openly gay colleague on the parish staff, finds himself pursued by a reporter for the Sunday tabloids.
Aside from the Lionel-Heather story line, which seems an arbitrary throwaway device, Racing Demon is a marvel of structure and pacing. Solitary prayersvariations on the traditional soliloquy, a difficult device to employ convincingly in modern playspunctuate the narrative, and the plot gathers a fierce momentum. The evening is quite long (nearly three hours), but it’s never dull, and it’s hypnotically rhythmic; Petosa moves his actors as fluidly as participants in a Mass.
When Hare sends us home, his characters are still afield in the holy war that has been declared: Every character’s life is exploded, unsettled, and irrevocably changed, but nobody’s won or lost just yet. How things will shake out is anyone’s guessthe answer will vary depending on an observer’s political bent and theological leaning. But Hare and the splendid Olney troupe that’s advancing his arguments for him have made Lionel and Tony and their fellows more than just mouthpieces for an esoteric debate. They won’t be easy to forget.CP