THE CRUSADE OF CONNOR STEPHENS

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Dewey Moss’s provocative family drama centers on the aftermath of a senseless shooting. Yet the central debate of the play here isn’t about gun control. THE CRUSADE OF CONNOR STEPHENS eschews easy answers and ripped-from-the-headlines relevance in favor of a more challenging exploration of clashing ideologies.

Traumatized by the death of his young daughter, Jim Junior (Ben Curtis), numbs his pain with whisky. His husband Kris (James Padric), injured in the attack, was the intended target, and the murderer, Connor Stephens, is also dead.  Kris’s relatives Kimmy (Julie Campbell) and Bobby (Jacques Mitchell) do their best to offer solace in this difficult time. Junior’s family is a different ballgame. His father Big Jim (James Kiberd), is a famous local televangelist: one whose sermons often condemn “sins” such as homosexuality. To complicate matters, Big Jim’s congregation includes the murderer and his family. Tragically, Marianne (Katherine Leask), feels that because of his sexuality, her beloved son is “lost” to her. Also caught in the vortex is Jim Junior’s childhood friend Dean (George Faya), who now serves as Big Jim’s right hand man at the church. Tensions are further exacerbated by a swarm of reporters gathered outside the house. Thankfully, there’s one family member, straight-talking Grandma Viv’n (Kathleen Huber), who values truth over protocol. She reveals a painful incident in Big Jim’s past that prompted him to  seek answers in religion.

Moss treats all perspectives with equal compassion, and shows that both sides can sometimes be guilty of finger-pointing. Big Jim is accountable for preaching hatred and intolerance to an impressionable flock, but he could hardly have known that Connor’s troubled mind would take phrases like “shooting down sin” literally. Junior faults his father, and Dean as well, for attending Connor Stephens’  funeral. Yet Connor, too, left a grieving family behind, and it’s a church official’s job to minister to those in need. By the same token, Big Jim’s failure to reach out to his son, and Marianne’s cruel condemnation of Kris, stand as alarming examples of what can happen when the church becomes part of the problem rather than the solution.

A well-cast ensemble embodies these contradictions effectively, but they are somewhat inhibited by the limitations of the production. Moss exhibits good directorial instincts, but the venue itself seems to fighting him. Festivals often give directors the short shrift when it comes to rehearsal time and control of the scenic design, and there a times when the actors – particularly when the entire cast is onstage – aren’t able to move fluidly around the crowded set. These problems will likely diminish if CRUSADE gets a longer run in a theater the right size and shape. It deserves to.

THE CRUSADE OF CONNOR STEPHENS continues through July 24th at the Midtown International Theater Festival, at the Workshop Theater Main Stage, 312 W. 36th Street.

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