Employing words of both consolation and provocation, experimental playwright Young Jean Lee explores the mysteries of spiritual devotion in “Church,” her engrossing one-act play being accorded a stirring local premiere by Forum Theatre and director Michael Dove.
We’re greeted in Forum’s black-box space in Silver Spring by a voice out of the dark, sermonizing about the “life of disappointing mediocrity” many people experience. Presumably, the act of listening to this preacher’s testimony is a first step toward ameliorating that condition. Soon, lights come up on a quartet of beneficently beaming actors — Revs. Jose (Kevin Hasser), Nora (Nora Achrati), Blair (Blair Bowers) and Stacy (Anastasia Wilson) — who implore audience members to volunteer “prayer requests” for departed loved ones or everyday problems.
It would be thoroughly appropriate to ask at this moment in the proceedings, “What exactly is going on here?” For “Church” carries on predominantly in this vein for the next hour or so. Lee is certainly capable of rip-roaring satire, as Studio Theatre’s 2ndStage demonstrated in 2010 with “Songs of the Dragon Flying to Heaven,” her funny and narratively unpredictable sendup of ethnic stereotyping.
Here, however, in dealing with faith and personal degrees of moral certainty, Lee takes a far more nuanced and conciliatory approach. She’s examining the heightened drama in the language of the pulpit — the points at which church and theater intersect — and doing it without excessive commentary. Oh sure, moments arise in “Church” when the illustrative examples offered by the various preachers veer into the absurd. Acting as a sort of chief minister, the superb Hasser launches into a disorienting discourse about the dangers of mummies; there’s no doubt that Lee finds some church rituals exotic and unfathomable.
But respect is also being paid in “Church” to the power of the message, and the beauty with which it can be delivered. At one point, the play segues into something akin to “Godspell,” with a moving hymn and a sequence in which the four actors engage in a free-form dance that expresses their spiritual ecstasy. And the evening ends in the most buoyant harmonies of all, courtesy of a vibrant church choir.
Under Dove’s lucid guidance, the actors bring a welcome warmth to the material. Hasser makes for a galvanizing ringleader: His ingratiating manner manages to hint ever so seductively at the intensity of his fervor. Admirably, neither Lee nor this production — an entry in Round House Theatre’s new Over the Line Festival — resorts to an urbane dismissal of what goes on between pastor and flock.
By Young Jean Lee. Directed by Michael Dove. Lighting, Stephanie P. Freed; assistant direction, Emily Jablonski; dialect coach, Laura Miller; music direction, Christopher Youstra. About 65 minutes. Through July 29 at Round House Theatre Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Call 240-644-1100 or visit www.forum-theatre.org.