Written and Directed by Dewey Moss
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
After a successful run at the 2016 Midtown International Theater Festival, “The Crusade of Connor Stephens” moves to the Off-Broadway stage at the Jerry Orbach Theater. There have been changes in this revival – not all of them necessary – but the heart of the play remains intact.
Big Jim’s (James Kiberd) Baptist Mega-Church is expanding. More space is need for its growing congregation. That conservative congregation also seems to need a television studio and a gym with a basketball court for outreach and youth ministries. One of the church’s young recruits is Connor Stephens the teenager the church took in “and helped him and his mama get off the streets.” Connor ends up shooting and killing Tess Williams the six-year-old daughter of Big Jim’s son Jim Jr. (played with a brooding sadness that masks a deep-seated rage by Ben Curtis) and Jim Jr.’s husband Kris (played with a sweetness and deep sadness by Alec Shaw) who is also wounded by Stephens. After the shooting Connor takes his own life.
Dewey Moss’s “The Crusade of Connor Stephens” deals with the events on the day of Tess’s funeral service as the extended family gathers at Jim Jr. and Kris’s small-town Texas home. Jim Jr.’s mother Marianne (played with a submissive explosiveness by Katherine Leask), his Grandma Vivi’n (Kathleen Huber), Kris’s sister Kimmy (played with a charming strength and willfulness by Julie Campbell) and her husband Bobby (played with a charming and powerful devotion by Jacques Mitchell) gather to mourn and to support Jim Jr. and Kris. The surprise guests are Big Jim and Connor’s coach Dean (played with a clever disingenuous loyalty by Clifton Samuels). When Big Jim shows up, all hell breaks loose and the grit of Mr. Moss’s script unfolds.
Big Jim is a preacher who commands not only his pulpit but his wife, his mother, and his congregation. The only family member he fails to command is his gay son Jim Jr. Big Jim despises not only what he considers “the sin of his son being gay;” he also despises his son for not succumbing to his authoritarian demands to “return to the fold.” Playwright Moss has created one of the most despicable characters in recent memory. Big Jim’s deep-seated homophobia, his hypocrisy, and his abusive behavior toward his wife and mother are only superseded by his enormous ego. Although James Kiberd successfully captures Big Jim’s character and brings a level of honesty and rich authenticity to his powerful performance, one wishes for a more layered emotional arsenal. Mr. Kiberd depends too much on volume and histrionics (odd hand and arm motions) to establish Big Jim’s persona.
It is difficult to say much about the secrets that are revealed when Big Jim visits his son on the day of Tess’s funeral without a spoiler alert. What Big Jim and Dean know about Tess’s death is revealed through a series of flashbacks (one of Big Jim’s sermons), confessions by Grandma, and hard evidence provided by a letter from Connor written to Dean just after that Big Jim sermon and just prior to the shooting. It is enough to know that these secrets – once revealed – explain not only the events surrounding the shooting of the six-year-old, but disclose decades of “skeletons” in Big Jim’s closet (the death of his brother Joey). Kathleen Huber delivers a solid performance as the aging matriarch Grandma Vivi’n who has “held her tongue” far too long and chooses honesty and grace as her way forward.
As those skeletons are unearthed, “The Crusade of Connor Stephens” unfolds across the stage with an emotional core that brings the day’s considerably bumpy ride to an explosive cathartic resolution.
Dewey Moss directs his engaging play with the care of a playwright and – after creating some distance between himself and his work – he will surely quicken the pace of the action to more exactly match the emotional strength of this important play. The intermission seems unnecessary and serves to break the action and affect the energy of the performances in the second act.
“The Crusade of Connor Stephens” could not be more relevant in the current climate of the strengthening of the religious right and in the face of the anti-LGBTQ platform seemingly supported by the current Administration.