Theater review: 'The Jesus Fund' takes nuanced look at religious faith

CorrespondentFebruary 3, 2014 

  • Details

    What: “The Jesus Fund,” by Terry Milner

    Where: Burning Coal Theatre, 224 Polk St., Raleigh

    When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and Feb. 13-15; 2 p.m. Feb. 9 and 16

    Tickets: $15-$25 ($5 student rush)

    Info: 919-834-4001 or burningcoal.org

Plays about controversial issues can fall into the traps of presenting a one-sided argument and becoming a lecture. Playwright Terry Milner confidently avoids both in “The Jesus Fund.” Burning Coal Theatre Company’s staging allows Milner’s balanced look at religious faith and evangelicalism to be entertaining drama as well as a springboard for self-examination.

The setting is a theological seminary fallen onto hard times. Declining enrollment and mounting debt have caused Aubrey, the aging dean, to ask David, a former teacher there and now a rich, influential evangelical Christian, to help. David’s “Jesus Fund,” an investment company that buys businesses to convert to evangelical purposes, is ready to save the seminary, but Michael, a teacher there and former friend of David’s, violently objects because Michael’s concept of faith has led him to a more secular, nearly atheistic approach.

Milner sets up fierce confrontations between David and Michael, laying out issues of the meaning of faith and the interpretation of biblical scripture, couching them in the characters’ realistic prejudices and received values. Milner adds further variations with Ilana, a female seminary student about to be ordained as an Episcopal priest, and two students involved in an interfaith project, Jonathan, a Reform Jew and Jamil, a liberal Sufi.

Milner makes the audience care for the characters and finds natural humor in the fraught situations. Despite a too-sketchy subplot involving Jonathan and Jamil and a too-neat tying up of plot strands at the end, the script is gripping and moving.

David Henderson turns in another vividly drawn characterization as David, allowing the audience to see David’s self-interested side yet revealing a strong desire to do good. Gregor McElvogue conveys Michael’s unyielding anger and bitterness with intensity, although within a rather narrow range of expression. Tom McCleister’s Aubrey is wonderfully warm, a heartrending portrait of knowing when to let go.

Carly Prentis Jones gives Ilana perky humor as mediator to the arguments. Ian Finley’s Jonathan and Rajeev Rajendran’s Jamil are likable characterizations that need more dimension and depth to fully convey their relationship.

Director Beth Gardiner keeps the pacing lively and astutely uses Michael Minahan’s pleasing settings of dorm, office and park. The production should not be considered a “religious” play but one that encourages questioning of blind adherence to any principles.

Dicks: music_theater@lycos.com

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