"Tent Meeting," which concerns a small-time evangelist whose daughter gives birth to a deformed baby he thinks is Jesus, is not intended to be a satire, said one of its creators, Levi Lee. "How can you satirize those guys?" the prematurely white-haired Atlanta actor said. "Jerry Falwell with his fetus feet pin? Ernest Angeley and his faith healing?"
But he does acknowledge a small debt to Jimmy Swaggart for the sound and style of Rev. Ed Tarbox, although the play is set in 1946 to utilize the look and style of that period.
"Tent Meeting," now at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, is part of a trilogy of plays written and performed by Lee, Rebecca Alworth Wackler and Larry Larson growing out of their interest in the Gnostic Gospels, which Lee describes as "books cut from the Bible because they were too feminist and too eastern."
The first play is called "Some Things You Need to Know Before the World Ends; An Evening With the Illuminati." The second is "The Gospel of Mary," a rock musical that attempts to restore the reputation of Mary Magdalene from prostitute to disciple.
"People who are deeply into theater are deeply religious," said Lee, 44, who at one point considered becoming an Episcopal priest. He spent nearly 10 years running a horse farm and a bookstore in Bowling Green, Ky., and attended church regularly. "Then when I went back to theater, I found I didn't need to go to church anymore," he said.
The Gnostic Gospels were attractive because they "say what I've believed all my life," he said. Of primary importance is the idea that "you look for answers within yourself, instead of some guru . . . The worst thing about these evangelists is that they tell people not to look inside themselves, and they take advantage of people at their most despairing."
Born in Atlanta, Lee was not raised in any religion but became a Methodist as a teen-ager "because all my friends were, and I could meet girls on the retreats." Later he turned to Episcopalianism "when I made more money," but also flirted with Judaism because "I don't see how anyone who believes in Jesus could not be a Jew."
If it isn't clear already, the "Tent Meeting" trio have an unusual point of view.
Lee and Wackler, who were married but are now separated in all but profession, started the Southern Theatre Conspiracy in Atlanta in 1978 "to do the plays we had always wanted to do. Then we found we didn't know what plays we wanted to do."
They ended up doing comedy for five years -- not necessarily by design, but because they felt like it after having done classical fare at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre and Academy Theatre. He and Larson, who plays his son Darrell in "Tent Meeting," wrote "Some Things You Need to Know" in 1981.
They produced "Tent Meeting" in 1984, and the response was underwhelming, with houses as small as six people not unusual.
"This is the least outrageous thing we've done," Lee said, "and the most structured. I think maybe the people who see us regularly were disappointed." They did a reading of it at an Alternate Roots conference a year ago, where director Patrick Tovatt heard it. He sent it to Jon Jory at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, who wanted to do it for the Humana Festival, a weekend-long event that showcases new works for critics and producers from all over the country.
"Jon wanted to do it without us, because they only use members of their company," Lee said. "But we felt we shouldn't let anyone else do it. We held out." Jory finally flew to Atlanta for a performance and agreed, hiring them as members of his company. "We think the only way to show what it's about is to do it ourselves," he said. "The play's kind of important to us."
They took it to the Spoleto Festival, and after ending their six-week run here will be going to the Dublin Festival, and then to Philadelphia. Other dates -- not including New York -- are in the works.
They have written a play on commission for the Actors Theatre Shorts Festival called "Isle of Dogs," about an Elizabethan play of that name that ran one night and caused all theaters to be closed for two years. It was written because Jory wanted a play about the struggles of resident theaters. And they are working on another play while they're on the road..
"We can afford a typewriter now," Lee said happily.