Jesus Hates Me

[The following review ran in Variety the week of January 29th.]

Somewhere in South Central Texas is a hollow where the relentless prairie winds deposit their found objects. There-amongst the tumbleweeds—are signs of human life: telephone poles, road signs, neon motel vacancy advertisements, beer and cola logos, chain-link fences, metal deck chairs, a wooden spool table, a Coleman lantern, and a decaying Airstream trailer on blocks. In the back yard is the family business, the Blood of the Lamb miniature golf course.

Photo of Justin Adams as Ethan
Justin Adams as Ethan
Photo: Terry Shapiro
The familiar yet funky authenticity of Robert Mark Morgan's multi-faceted set is filled with stellar images, from the Wal-Mart mannequin that has been transformed into a crucified Jesus on a latticework cross—marking the 17th hole; we're told the 18th hole is the Resurrection—to the impressively detailed Airstream.

Into this world, Wayne Lemon—former sitcom writer ("Grace Under Fire," "The Torkelsons," etc.), Norman Lear protégé, and first-time playwright—has mixed and matched from memory the likes of characters as typical and unique as you're likely to find in such places. A Texas Baptist preacher's son and UT graduate, Lemon knows these people like the inside of his pick-up truck.

Photo of Kathleen McCall as Annie
Kathleen McCall as Annie
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Take Ethan (Justin Adams), an ex-high school football star with a blown knee, and his razor-tongued mom, Annie, a still-attractive, Bible-obsessed unmarried forty-something. If Ethan doesn't take up his brother Bobby's offer to teach skiing and horse-back riding at a gay resort in Colorado, he'll likely drink himself to an early death without ever leaving Dodge; if Ethan does take up the offer, Annie (Kathleen McCall) will surely perish in one of her trademark fits of madness that draw equally from religious fervor and bipolar disorder.

Photo of Chelsey Rives as Lizzy and Craig Pattison as Boone
Chelsey Rives as Lizzy and
Craig Pattison as Boone
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Depression, it seems, is a way of life in this gulch. Ethan's ex-high school sweetheart, Lizzy (Chelsey Rives), who still pines for him, serves up her own brand of redemption at the local watering hole she inherited from her papa. Her libations and homespun advice seem to keep even the most loco of the locals within the bounds of comedy, if not the law.

Lizzy's younger brother and dishwasher Georgie (Michael Keyloun), who unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide on his high school graduation day and only succeeded in destroying his larynx, no longer goes unheard with his electronic voice synthesizer.

But the most hyperbolic of the bunch is Boone (Craig Pattison), a uncouth, beer-swilling good-ol'-boy whose cluelessness is all that saves him from numerous bouts with cuckolded husbands and the business end of their shotguns.

The only way the local cop, Trane (Marlon Morrison), can cope with all of this as the solitary African-American in town, is to walk softly (a doo-rag under his 10-gallon hat and a joint behind his ear) and carry a big stick (his siren and his six-shooter).

Playwright Lemon on the other hand needs only his pen to disarm the audience with pointed one-liners and thoughtful existential observations. The audience laughs and hoots, mostly as intended, as director David McClendon alternately has his players talk past one another to the laugh track and then square-off and get personal. This stylistic mix gives the story a hybrid feel—half sit-com, half drama; both styles work on their own (there's no shortage of talent on the stage), but the transitions in character are unnecessarily abrupt. Given the comedic nature of the play's end, a melodrama device is called for to grease the wheels of these transitional moments.

ETHAN: I lose the bitterness there'll be nothing left inside. I'll be empty. (He strikes the match on the bottom of the Jesus mannequin's foot, lights the cigarette.) ANNIE: Don't have to be. Do what he did. Fill yourself with forgiveness and love. ETHAN: Yeah, yeah that worked out well for him. …ETHAN (referring to the mannequin on the ground): I'm guessing Jeezy Creezy didn't hop down off there on his own, hitchhike into town to do jello shots. ANNIE: Last night's storm. Looked out, saw him sailing over the concession stand like a Frisbee.

Considering the mercurial make-up of the intended audience (Gen-X), perhaps Lemon has hit upon genre that—as irreverent and at times as profane as rap, yet filled with pertinent issues and rebellious politics—will bring them into the theatre for cultural conversation. After readings at the Southern Writers Project, Hartford Stage, and The Steppenwolf Theatre, the world premiere version of Jesus Hates Me knows its audience. With the right marketing and some organ music, it could be a hit.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's world premiere of Wayne Lemon's Jesus Hates Me runs through March 11. 303-893-4100.

Bob Bows


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