ALTAR CALL (Melissa McBain): “Theologically speaking, have you ever considered going to hell?”

 

Russ Walsh as Rev. Silas Elmore trying to save his grandson from a gay lifestyle in ALTAR CALL.

Russ Walsh as Rev. Silas Elmore trying to save his grandson from a gay lifestyle in ALTAR CALL.

“An altar call is a practice in some evangelical Christian churches in which those who wish to make a new spiritual commitment are invited to come forward publicly” (Wikipedia). This plays shows such an altar call, but in dramatically different, tradition defying ways from what most religious leaders expect from their obedient flock.

Challenging assumptions

The last time I went to a church in Philadelphia was a year ago when I saw Dan Hodge at the old Broad Street Ministries, performing Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece. Unlike Lucrece who was never given a chance, we now witness an outspoken American woman in the same church: playwright Melissa McBain, Ph.D., vice president of Philadelphia Dramatists Center, daughter of a pastor and a physician’s wife, created Maggie, a female protagonist who, after having been conditioned into hierarchal thinking, eventually speaks up, not only for her gay son, but challenges the assumptions of a “holy” book that was written by tribal men in a desert culture over 2,000 years ago.

 

Gil Johnson (left) and Peter Andrew Danzig. Photo by Andy Joos.

Gil Johnson (left) and Peter Andrew Danzig.
Photo by Andy Joos.

Such is the autobiographical background of this moving drama. However, unlike many other coming-out plays, ALTAR CALL goes deeper. It shows the conflict with which each character struggles, performed by a fine cast. Even though it is a modern tragedy, directed by William Andrew Robinson and produced by Random Acts of Theater, it’s ultimately a dramatic and not so random act of kindness.

The play takes place in a Baptist church and an upscale home in an Arizona desert. Unlike the Catholic Church, where the hierarchy at the Vatican makes decisions for Catholics around the world, the Baptist church follows a different model where pastors have much more leeway in their decision making—an important part in the conflict-laden family of a bright and well meaning, but ultimately bigoted and homophobic minister. The patriarch of the family, Silas Elmore (Russ Walsh), makes decisions that tear the family apart, but also lead to major breakthroughs for some of the key players in this moving drama.

“Theologically speaking, have you ever considered going to hell?”

Right from the beginning, we hear the voice of tradition, mediocrity, and hate, setting the stage. Howard (Ben Kendall), a senior church member, berates Pastor Silas Elmore, for supporting “perverts.” When the homophobe doesn’t give up, Pastor Silas delivers a brilliant coup de grace, “Theologically speaking, have you ever considered going to hell?”

Ruth (Susan Mattson), the Pastor’s wife, argues with her husband about their grandson John (Gil Johnson) whom he considers “so weak.” Foreshadowing the events to come, the Pastor tells his wife, “I’m just being vigilant.” When Maggie (Julia Wise) tells her father about Matt (Peter Andrew Danzig), the young new musician who is tutoring John, the Pastor, full of suspicion, asks, “How often are they alone?” He quotes Leviticus, Chapter 18.

Maggie, still under the spell of her father, confesses that she always loved his sermons, “whether they were good for me or not.” Right from the beginning we realize that the main character is a bright woman who is going to come into her own, even though she will be tried severely by everyone in the play.

Dysfunctional traditions

Her father reverts to traditional interpretations, especially when it comes to women and minorities. His daughter admits that she is “still tempted to believe too much.” If John, the minister’s grandson, falls in love with Matt, he has to be fired—an act that leads to not only the break-up of the family, but to many insights about the negative impact of dysfunctional traditions. “We’re next in the cross hairs,” he admits, and later tells the young musician, “You’re hurting this ministry. And now my family.” Matt, outraged, asks, “Aren’t they the same? You made me part of this family.” Convinced that he is doing the right thing, Silas tells his grandson, “I SAVED him! And you!”

ALTAR CALL begins and ends with hymns, not only setting the mood but, through carefully chosen songs, it sends out thought-provoking messages. Lightening up the play, Maggie, troubled by her husband Alan (Andy Joos) and his infidelity and coldness, sings, “I’m gonna wash that man right outa my hair,” while the Pastor, concerned about the financial future, sings, “If I were a rich man.” Yet, the same man who powerfully interferes in the life of his gay grandson tries to whitewash the digressions of Alan, his heterosexual son-in-law: “Maggie, don’t be so suspicious.  It’s unattractive.” Dutifully, but also honestly, she tells him, “I’m trying, Dad, but it’s a lot of work being blind.”

“Liberals picket to save an old theatre or rattlesnakes”

Pastor Elmore who appears as the epitome of open-mindedness can be as narrow-minded as any homophobe when he learns that several of his colleagues have lost their ministries because they had affirmed homosexuals. “Liberals don’t give money to churches anymore. They save trees and animals. Not souls. They’ll picket to save an old theatre or rattlesnake but not a church. White liberals anyway. Don’t they build churches with closets anymore?”

Troubled marriage with Andy Joos and Julia Wise in ALTAR CALL.

Troubled marriage with Andy Joos and Julia Wise in ALTAR CALL.

ALTAR CALL, takes on a new dimension when the pastor’s daughter is told by her husband the physician that she needs to work full time. She protests, “I’m working on my degree. I’m almost A.B.D. [all but dissertation, the last step before earning a Ph.D.]” To make matters worse, her father pulls the pin on two grenades, “We wouldn’t be in this mess, Maggie, if you knew how to support your husband and how to mother a son.”

Full of defiance, Maggie declares, “I’m not quitting school!” She tells her mother of her husband’s extramarital affairs and then declares, “I don’t want a family glued together with lies.” At that moment, her mother, a traditional wife who often sounds like a religious doormat, has her own breakthrough, telling her daughter, “Then you STAND UP and TELL THE TRUTH! Pull out the lies, one thread at a time. Then you put what’s left together. You make a quilt.”

The same woman who suffered the consequences of a rigid religious upbringing and the selfishness of an arrogant husband, comes into her own by defending her gay son, and telling her father what she thinks of a book that was written by tribesmen over 2,000 years ago.

Edward Albee and grieving parents respond to ALTAR CALL

After previous performances of her play, McBain received moving letters from grieving parents whose gay kids no longer could endure the constant harassment and abuse from classmates and neighbors. One mother wrote, “I don’t have a gay son; I have a dead one.”

I concur with Edward Albee, who had read the script and liked it so much that he recommended it (“you should see this play”). ALTAR CALL could open minds—inside and outside churches.

[Broad Street Ministry, 315 S. Broad Street] October 9-17, 2015; altarcall.brownpapertickets.com

 

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About the author

Henrik Eger

HENRIK EGER, editor of Drama Around the Globe. Bilingual playwright, author of Metronome Ticking. Born and raised in Germany. Ph.D. in English, University of Illinois, Chicago. German translator of Martin Luther King, Jr’s Nobel Peace Prize mail. Producer-director: Multilingual Shakespeare, London. Retired professor of English and Communication who taught in six countries on three continents, including four universities and one college in the U.S. Author of four college text books. Longtime Philadelphia theatre correspondent for AAJT, the world’s largest Jewish theatre website. Articles published in Classical Voice, Los Angeles; Kayhan International, Tehran, Iran; Indian Express, Mumbai, India; The Jewish Forward, New York; Philadelphia Jewish Voice, Phindie, and Broad Street Review, Philadelphia; The Mennonite, Tucson; and New Jersey Stage. Contact: HenrikEger@gmail.com