Rock of ages 

God's Man in Texas does justice to megachurches

A well-known paradox ponders: "If God is all-powerful, can He make a rock so big that even He can't lift it?" Another challenge that seems almost as impossible is, "Can a writer do justice to the larger-than-life subject of televangelism with both realism and wit?"

America's megachurches and television ministries can go to extremes, with such purple rhetoric, such blatant appeals for money, such flamboyant showbiz techniques and such squalid scandals that they can resist a fictional confinement. Made-up church stories invariably go over the top, while the true ones prove thoroughly complex. The documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye persuasively paints the earnest, overly made-up Tammy Faye Bakker as a figure of sympathy.

Playwright David Rambo squarely faces his task in God's Man in Texas, which looks at a sprawling religious organization without being a scorching exposé or a too obvious spoof. The Alliance Theatre's Hertz Stage has credible characters and droll humor throughout, although its message falls a little short of biblical proportions.

When we first see Mark Kincaid smiling in a pulpit, his spectacles and cheekbones prove nearly evocative of Jim Bakker. Kincaid plays Jeremiah "Jerry" Mears, a preacher from a flourishing San Antonio church where, as a Baptist rising star, he's caught the attention of Houston's Rock Baptist Church. The biggest Baptist church in the world, "Rock" was founded by the crusading Dr. Phillip Gottschall (Tony Mockus), whose global renown and influence still rivals Billy Graham's, despite his advanced age.

Jerry is invited to preach Sunday evening "lessons" at Rock, as a kind of audition to be Gottschall's successor. At least that's what Jerry learns from TV technician and recovering addict Hugo Mears (Larry Larson), who gives Jerry pointers in how to ingratiate himself with Gottschall, the church committee and the parishioners. One of the play's funniest moments has Jerry trying to be more "folksy" in his sermon, hooking his thumbs around his belt buckle and spinning a yarn about trying to get his son to eat broccoli.

Gottschall has no intention of retiring quietly and the play offers a fascinating glimpse into the political jockeying between "the pastor," his wife, the committee and the candidates. It's a shame that the formidable Mrs. Gottschall isn't an onstage character, as she emerges vividly from the play's second-hand descriptions.

One can imagine the play's Southern preachers being presented with eyesore wardrobes, 10-gallon toupees and elongated vowels, but director Eddie Levi Lee maintains a touch that's light without being frivolous. For instance, on Sundays during holidays, Jerry and Gottschall wear neckties with amusingly gaudy Christmas or July 4 patterns, but nothing outright ridiculous.

The second act finds Jerry in place as Gottschall's co-pastor, and one sequence finds him mustering the enthusiasm to bless the church facility's new bowling alley, the football team, the weight loss group, etc. He's uncomfortable with Rock's sprawling reach and contrived glamour, but he grows intoxicated by its influence. He abandons his naive ways in favor of tracking attendance figures, reading memos and having territorial disputes over parking places and who gets to preach the Sunday morning broadcast.

Rambo doesn't paint Gottschall as hypocritical or insincere, despite his nearly totalitarian vision of Rock as a sheltering place for families to be fruitful and multiply. "Put them in a pool on Saturday, they'll be in a pew on Sunday," he says. But Jerry, the son of a salesman, keeps wondering whether Gottschall is building an audience or saving souls, and whether Rock's operation is, in effect, selling the sizzle or the steak.

Mockus gets plenty of comic mileage from Gottschall's high-handed manner and obsession with health: He all but commands Jerry to exercise and eat pitted prunes. When Gottschall sermonizes on "God's time," Mockus enunciates with roof-shaking force, while his sonorous speaking voice is almost hypnotic.

Kincaid deftly handles Jerry's funny moments but more impressively portrays his religious convictions, coming across as faithful without being zealous. As the former alcoholic Hugo, Larson has the play's broadest comedy, mentioning that he likes George W. Bush because, "Him and me have very similar backgrounds." Hugo's personal problems provide pathos, while Larson frequently suggests the mismatched but intimate relationship between performers and the behind-the-scenes crew. (Plus, with Lee directing his writing partner Larson, God's Man sort of subliminally refers to its own fundamentalist comedy Tent Meeting.)

God's Man in Texas returns to motifs about hearing the Word and the relationship of fathers to sons, and Rambo tends to spell out his themes more explicitly than necessary. He treats no character as a bad guy and thus the play lacks a certain sharpness, never making as forceful a statement as it probably intends. But in exploring the play's ideas about the different means of spreading the word of God, the Alliance's God's Man in Texas never preaches to the choir.

God's Man in Texas plays through May 27 at the Alliance Theatre's Hertz Stage, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St., with performances at 8 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. $21-$27. 404-733-5000.

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