Saturday, March 1, 2008

This Beautiful City


By Charles Whaley

Commissioned and developed by the group of New York theater artists called The Civilians, This Beautiful City, the third of six full-length plays to open at this year’s Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theater of Louisville, is an unsettling, fiercely intelligent dissection of the American Evangelical movement. The city is Colorado Springs, the movement’s unofficial headquarters, with its myriad churches and conservative political organizations such as Focus on the Family that grew up around the 14,000-member New Life Church founded in 1984 by the charismatic Pastor Ted Haggard.

While The Civilians were interviewing local people and visiting churches during their 10-week residency at Colorado College, Haggard’s explosive downfall came when a male prostitute, upset over Haggard’s hypocritical stance against a gay rights referendum, revealed their three-year relationship as well as Haggard’s drug habit. The mega-church minister first denied, then admitted his guilt. With the fallout, the White House denied that President Bush had weekly conference calls with Haggard but conceded that Haggard made a visit or two to the White House.

The Civilians’ brilliantly synthesized findings emerge in the play written by Steven Cosson (whose direction never loses momentum) and Jim Lewis (whose hometown was Colorado Springs) augmented by Michael Friedman’s forceful, all-embracing music and lyrics performed by Scott Anthony (keyboard), Anthony Gantt (drums) and Ben Short (bass).

Cast members (Emily Ackerman, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Brad Heberlee, Stephen Plunkett) who along with the authors did the interviewing bring their subjects to compelling life. Ian Brennan and Dori Legg also portray people in the time leading up to, and after, the 2004 election.

A writer for alternative newspapers who grew up in the Colorado resort town and returned in 2001 tells how “it was like a zombie movie or something” when the Evangelicals “just sorta invaded” right after he went to college. “Around that time, New Life was getting huge -- Ted Haggard -- and, you know, they built that monstrosity of a building out there…And then there’s Focus on the Family -- ”it’s like the biggest conservative Christian media empire in the world.”

Four military installations -- all dominated by conservative Christian Evangelicals -- are nearby: the Air Force Academy, Fort Carson, Ent Air Force Base, and NORAD. Military cadets and faculty talk openly of the heavy-handed crusading they embrace or at least tolerate for fear of recriminations. “This is bigger than Ted,” says a military activist. “And it’s not just the Air Force Academy, it’s the Marine Corps, Navy, Army. This is a story that threatens the fundamental security of this country. All 702 of our U. S. military installations -- all of them -- have an Officers Christian Fellowship on them.”

A non-gay community activist says of the Christian right, “They’ve got a big picture, and it has to do with big things like dismantling government programs and privatizing public education, because the more they can dismantle, the more people need the church to provide those services. Faith-based initiatives, all that. Right. And what do you think that means for the Christian leaders? Power and money. This gay marriage panic is just a means for an end to them.” “We all think there’s simple, easy solutions to everything,” and the Evangelicals make that sound appealing. “I think there’s a piece of it where we are willing to relinquish everything if someone will just tell us there’s a right way to be in the world. But the truth is the world is complex. It’s more complex than ever before.”

This thoughtful, probing examination of what has become a major threat to the U. S. Constitution deserves to be widely seen. Some trims would improve the overly long second act and, hopefully, that will be done before the play moves to The Studio Theater in Washington, D. C., which also produced it in association with ATL and The Civilians, whose earlier Gone Missing won plaudits at ATL and in New York.