Review by Lisa Panzer
Take a seat in a small town Texas living room steaming with grief and loss, where Jim Jr. (Ben Curtis) sits in a silence saturated with sorrow. Today he will have to bury his beloved adopted daughter, Tess, who was gunned down at her grade school by Connor Stephens, a youth who believed he was doing the work of the Lord. His sister-in-law Kimmy (Julie Campbell) frets about flowers, and food for folks who might come, in an attempt to help or comfort in any way she can. Jim Jr.’s husband, Kris (Alec Shaw), was nearly killed in the shooting. Kris is recuperating physically, but is otherwise in extreme pain on many levels. Jim Jr.’s family does not support his choices, particularly his sententiously religious father, Big Jim (James Kiberd) who wants him back in the family fold, but they do show up. Meanwhile, news people are hustling outside waiting for a scoop, and a crowd has collected as well. Inside, certain kinfolk want ole’ Grandma Vivi’n (Kathleen Huber) to shut up, and stay put in her wheelchair, but she has something to say which ultimately works towards revealing an explosive truth that will rock and reset the firmament of the entire family, and surrounding community.
It turns out that Connor’s gun was actually set off by a sermon he heard in church. Playwright and Director, Dewey Moss, has dialed up relationship dynamics via story, situation and strong characters, as they experience the calamitous results of a world gone mad. ‘The Crusade of Conner Stephens” explores the results of conditions being imposed on love, untenable familial expectations, issues behind gun violence, LGBT and adoption rights, and religion today, to name a few, viscerally raising questions and heightening awareness, but does not itself preach it.
Silence loomed in the house attesting to the effect when actors project forth feelings so powerful that they are palpable, especially as they speak to the most persistent human attachments; that of family ties and the suffering when tears form in the familial fabric. Katherine Leask, in the role of Jim Jr.’s mother, Marianne, deftly demonstrates her characters intolerance and fear of what she cannot accept or understand, unleashing her unrepentant fury on Kris, the man who “took her son away”, in a shattering of words that hit him like bitter shards of broken glass. Alec Shaw wears raw reactions so well; it is heartrending to watch him in this role. As his sister Kimmy, Julie Campbell exudes caring and real concern, while her contractor husband, Bobby, surpassingly played by Jaques Mitchell, superbly raises stage tension in his defense of those close to him. Powerhouse actor James Kiberd embodies the zealous puppeteer pulpiter, distinctly in a scene where he, bullishly angry, walks family friend, lay-leader and former coach to Connor, Dean, portrayed with delicate sincerity by Clifton Samuels, out the door by placing his index finger above his head to move him faster. Dean, although hesitant, is pivotal in emancipating the events leading up to the tragic shooting, but Grandma Vivi’n, played with sparkle and spunk by Kathleen Huber, is a born again catalyst, and will not relent until the truth will out! Grandma also supplies some humor, and not only helps in bringing harmful hate to light, but also helps to bring about the healing properties of truth and love. Her grandson, Jim Jr. is performed with precision with a too grieved to be goaded by his overbearing father air, by Ben Curtis, until all Hell breaks loose… An outstanding, compelling ensemble.
Lights, designed by Zach Blane, were potently employed in delineating different locations on James Noone’s smartly, and tightly designed, cozily attractive set. Markedly dramatic is lighting during the change of scene from living room to pulpit as the lights blazed brightly, diminished to black, then coming up on actor James Kiberd exhorting as Big Jim. Teresa-Snider Stein’s costumes coordinate nicely with the elements of set and lighting, and sound by David M. Lawson augments the action and intense emotional journey within the play.
Performances of ‘The Crusade of Conner Stephens’ continue through September 30 on Mondays at 7:30pm, Tuesdays at 8pm, Thursdays at 8pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm and 7:30pm.
The Jerry Orbach Theater at The Theater Center is located at 210 West 50th Street in New York City. For tickets, visit Ticketmaster.com or call (212) 921-7862.