ABINGDON, VA -- When a writer wants to address the issue of religion in an area once referred to as the "buckle of the Bible belt," he should do it with the knowledge that he will enlighten some and enrage others. Or, if he does it with humor, he can just make 'em all laugh. That's the main goal of Ron Osborne's "Showtime at First Baptist," which continues through Aug. 8 on Barter Theatre's Main Stage.
They're back! The ladies who first debuted in "First Baptist of Ivy Gap" return for another episode: Edith, Vera, Mae Ellen, Olene, Lucille, and Annie. During Barter's first production with this group, the ladies were helping with the WWII effort. This time it's the Vietnam War that serves as a backdrop for the events in their lives.
It would have been easier for the playwright to focus solely on the comedic encounters, of which there are many, but Ron doesn't shy away from the more serious issues that act as dramatic thread throughout the play. Don't misunderstand; it is a comedy first. But it is a comedy with some bite, and those moments of seriousness make the funny moments even funnier, whereas comedy for the sake of comedy often becomes slapstick.
When the show begins, the ladies are giddy over the success of the church picnic -- a picnic celebrating the 100th anniversary of the church. A bolt of lightning, ironically, destroys the steeple, the organ, and sends the pastor, Edith's husband, to the hospital. In order to raise money to rebuild, and perhaps as a way to preoccupy themselves, the ladies come up with the idea of having a big "show" for everyone. Lucille is adamantly opposed to the idea since it is, of course, of the devil, but the rest of the group moves forward. And it is that movement forward that, while funny, sets up many of the more interesting themes in this play.
Edith, the unofficial matriarch, is paying constant visits to the hospital during the planning of this event, all the while wrestling with her new role. She was, for so many years, the preacher's wife, her role secondary to his, even though she is credited with authoring some of his more powerful sermons. But she must now define herself another way. Perhaps it is this redefining that causes her to question the church, and God, over her dilemma. Just as with Job, she has been a good and faithful servant, so why this test, at this point in her life, with so much to look forward to? That question, like Job's, does not get an answer.
What she does find, though, is that human beings are dependent on other human beings (no man is an island). And her cast of characters is tailor-made for this obstacle in her life. She cannot help but be encouraged by their unwavering support, and she grows to appreciate what she still has rather than focus solely on what she's lost. Her friends, warts and all, are an uplifting element in her life. Still, like the song says, change is gonna come.
Lucille, played by Tricia Matthews, is a strong supporter of the war in Vietnam, and her new daughter-in-law, played by Katie Becker, is against it, especially considering her husband is involved. Lucille believes that the war effort is the duty of every American, perhaps even the Christian duty, so she supports it without question. And this ideological battle is one of the stronger aspects of the play, particularly given the country's current war efforts. Some believe that there's no such thing as a just war, or holy war, and this play delves into that argument without trying to pick a side.
While the ladies continue to prepare for the Show, the comedy truly hits a high note with Olene, the town's fallen woman. Like Fred Sanford used to say about fallen women, "I'd like to break her fall." She has a great deal of (how can I put this?) "experience" entertaining people, and her enthusiasm conjures up old dreams Vera has about being an entertainer. When their passion and zeal erupt, it makes for the funniest moments in the show. But there again, the comedy is driven by the drama.
Women in a small Southern town, in the 1970s, in a Baptist church, are conditioned to take orders from their men folk. But these six women, often through guile, open defiance, or other means, find ways to empower themselves and effect changes in their lives. And as they do so, you can't help but be taken in. All this leads to the play's strongest asset: the actors.
Mary Lucy Bivins and Evalyn Baron are two of the best to ever grace the Barter stage. They have great ability, and superb timing. Although there are times when the denomination jokes come a bit too often, it's the acting that makes it work. Ron's words on blank pieces of paper come to life wonderfully with these six actresses. Their abilities allow him to delve into some interesting, thought-provoking topics while making you laugh too hard to feel offended.