CYNICAL WEATHERS | VICTORY GARDENS THEATER
WHEN Through 5/13: Tue-Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 5 and 8:30 PM, Sun 3 PM
WHERE Victory Gardens Theater at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln
My faith is one that admits some doubt. --Barack Obama in a 2004 TV interview
Chicago theatergoers are accustomed to seeing intimate, intense activity depicted onstage: sex, violence, substance abuse, mental breakdown, urination. But Tom Amandes, playing a wealthy politician in Douglas Post's new drama, Cynical Weathers, pulls off an especially difficult feat: he prays, credibly portraying the ecstasy and confusion of someone who believes he's communicating with the Holy Spirit. The power of that moment is heightened when Amandes's character later describes his life-changing epiphany--and his growing sense of loss as the experience recedes in memory, making room for renewed doubts.
Honest acting by Amandes and his fellow cast members is crucial to the success of Cynical Weathers, which could easily be undermined by histrionics: it tackles the daunting, divisive issue of the role of faith in modern American politics. Amandes plays Congressman Dixon McDaniels, a maverick moderate Republican from Corpus Christi, Texas. His wife, Cat, is a scientist and self-described born-again agnostic who's just returned from studying the effects of global warming on the Arctic. Dixon and his staff--policy director Manny Hernandez, a lapsed Catholic, and Jewish speechwriter Lee Gelman--are preparing an energy bill that will put Dixon at odds with the oil industry, not to mention key colleagues in Congress.
While Cat presses the cause of environmental protection, Dixon and his aides wrangle over the compromises necessary to win support for his legislation. But something deeper is gnawing at Dixon, a longtime but casual churchgoer, and he comes under the influence of his new chief of staff, evangelical Christian Andrea Brady. She's smart, likable, and pretty, but whatever romantic attraction there might be is secondary to Dixon's growing interest in her fundamentalism--including the notion that the world is in "the end-times."
The tug-of-war between Cat and Andrea for Dixon's allegiance takes on greater urgency when news arrives that a potentially catastrophic hurricane is sweeping in from the Gulf of Mexico. The storm both threatens to destroy Dixon's sprawling estate and exacerbates Cat, Manny, and Lee's growing anger and disillusionment as Dixon comes to embrace Andrea's brand of Christianity. Dixon himself is troubled by the questions his emerging spirituality raises. Should he use his political prominence to promote his faith or cut short his career and devote himself to a religious calling? If he sticks with politics, how should religion shape his agenda? Can a politician be guided by his Christian beliefs while respecting--and protecting--the rights of those who don't share them?
These are timely themes in an election season when many politicians are calling attention to their religious convictions. Barack Obama's emergence as a viable presidential candidate rests in large part on his willingness to proclaim his faith--and his call to other Democrats to follow suit. When John Edwards announced that he'd continue his campaign despite the recurrence of his wife's cancer, some opined that the couple's decision reflected their religious beliefs even though it hadn't been framed in those terms. Republican contenders Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback emphasize their identities as " 'Second Commandment' Christians, those more interested in salvation than damnation," in the words of Time magazine, while Mitt Romney has galvanized support among his fellow Mormons. The fusion of spirituality and politics troubles many concerned with the separation of church and state. But for others--even those ambivalent about religion--it's a valid way to gauge politicians' character and leadership abilities, especially important when it comes time to guide Americans through the radical sacrifices necessary to stop environmental deterioration.
The play's greatest flaw is its schematic approach to the characters, who reflect a cross section of religious attitudes a little too neatly. But the intelligence of Post's writing and the pressing significance of the subject more than compensate for any contrivance. And the conviction of the cast--which also includes Lindsay Gould as Andrea, Bethanny Alexander as Cat, Tony Castillo as Manny, and Ben Brooks Cohen as Lee--adds emotional weight to director Dennis Zacek's insightful Victory Gardens production.
Cynical Weathers largely steers clear of disputes over reproductive rights, the rights of sexual minorities, prayer in the classroom, evolution versus creationism, American support of Israel, and so on. Post might be criticized for avoiding these hot-button topics, but he chooses to focus on the underlying philosophies that divide religionists from secularists--and religionists from other religionists, for that matter. Refusing to cater to stereotypes, he communicates the integrity of each character while challenging their positions. As ambivalent as his protagonist, the playwright offers no answers. This is a play about truth, not certainty--a play that's as much about doubt as faith.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Liz Lauren.