God's Man in Texas (Review)

A decent play but less-than-effective showing at Mariemont Players

David Rambo’s 1999 play God’s Man in Texas takes a savage, albeit occasionally comic look at industrialized Christianity and at mega-churches that operate less on a foundation of faith than on the rock-solid egos of their heaven-hawking pastors. It’s not a great play, but it’s a very good one. It’s episodic to an extreme, and there’s a back-story that could profit from additional explication.

The script is up front, and the plot is well-structured. The characters — a senior pastor-manager, a younger, up-and-coming co-pastor and the sound technician who manages Sunday services — are vividly drawn, if broadly. Plot, character and the playwright’s jaundiced opinions, however, are more hampered than examined, and the comedy gets out of hand in the jumbled production now playing weekends at Mariemont Players. Fault lies primarily with director-designer Jef Brown.

Three able actors, all with prior successes — Joe Hornbaker, Donnie McGovern and Jack Williams — are set to shouting at the outset, and then keep at it for two hours, displaying insufficient subtlety. Things fall out of balance and so remain. The characters don’t define or refine themselves and the core assessment of conflicted father-son relationships and salesmanship masquerading as pastoral care can’t come into focus so long as the two principle characters keep preaching instead of conversing.

In a comedic role meant to countervail the tension between the two preachers, Hornbaker is allowed to slip out of support mode and take over scenes in which he should be taking part. Brown’s set concept confines too much of the action back inside narrow cubbyholes.

Most damaging to the show’s impact, however, are endless, pokey scene transitions. Stagehands drift onstage and lackadaisically open and close wall panels. Several times silhouetted actors had to stand waiting in place while prolonged incidental music cues jerked to an to end. Playwright Rambo writes as much for television (CSI, Las Vegas) as for the stage. His God’s Man in Texas script is almost cinematic in nature, adroitly designed to allow scenes to butt together, even slightly overlap, creating a strong forward motion. Not so at Mariemont. Individual scenes might crackle with energy, but the show grinds to a halt every few minutes.

But enough about this flawed production and more about the play, which the Cincinnati Playhouse presented in 2001. In reviewing that production I described the bustling Texas Jesus factory thusly: “We’re on the 17-acre campus of Rock Baptist Church, Houston, the largest Baptist church in the world: 30,000 in the congregation; four services every Sunday, attracting thousands, plus thousands more on the church’s own RBC radio and television networks; pre-school classes, an elementary school, high school and college; three cafeterias, two snack bars; a multi-screen cinema; a bowling alley; a gymnasium; two swimming pools; and hundreds of self-help group meetings ranging from recovery from alcohol and drug abuse to praying for weight loss.”

Towering over this fundamentalist empire is Dr. Philip Gottschall (Williams). He is in absolute control and perfect health, but he’s 81. Without his consent, a search committee seeks and identifies a co-pastor and anointed successor, one Jeremiah Mears (McGovern), whose congregation in San Antonio numbers a mere 6,000. Conflict is inevitable — over image, over egos stroked and egos dented, control of the church’s ministry and the loyalty of staff members — illustrated by an amusing struggle over the loyalty of Hugo Taney (Hornbaker), a recovering druggie who is the Rock’s sound technician and stage manager of worship services. Stage manager? Worship?

A more meaningful conflict goes on inside Mears’ character, though it’s not easy to discern in the Mariemont production. He’s the sort of charismatic speaker such a church would admire, but he questions the egotistic ways in which some preachers employ charisma. He is a leader, but he ponders whether he’s leading a flock or herding sheep.

Again quoting from my 2001 review: “Rambo’s script displays, perhaps unconsciously, a disturbing devaluation of women. No females hold positions of authority within the Rock empire. That’s a given. However, only four specific women are even discussed. There is talk of a reformed prostitute of whom Taney inquires with self-righteous distaste, “Is she still fat?” There is Mears’ wife, a degreed librarian who chooses “not to work outside the home.” There is Gottschall’s wife, who is pictured as a manipulative martinet. And there is Gottschall’s embarrassment, a child who is not only not a son, but is brain-damaged as well. This last detail is at best gratuitous.”

God’s Man in Texas is a decent play being given a less-than-effective showing at Mariemont.

GOD’S MAN IN TEXAS, presented by Mariemont Players, continues through Nov. 23. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.

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