Penny Penniston’s religious culture-clash comedy treats all of its characters with humanity, even when they seem more like points of view than humans.
The pastor of an evangelical megachurch commissions a mural from an atheist lesbian artist (from New York City, even!) in Penny Penniston's new comedy. But the high-profile, politically connected preacher, Ed Newell (Don Bender), prominent enough to be called away from Des Moines for a Virginia photo-op with the president at a moment’s notice, takes a backseat to his outwardly confident, inwardly conflicted but fiercely loyal assistant, Arthur (Brian Plocharyczyk), in Penniston’s equally inspired and schematic setup.
It’s Arthur, who survived addiction and tragedy to find Ed and Jesus in that order, who serves as the main opponent for the feisty artist, Irene (Kate Black-Spence), after Ed insists on hiring the caustically abrasive painter to decorate the ceiling of his outer office—Arthur’s main domain.
Penniston essentially takes a number of hot-button social issues—gay rights, reproductive choice, addiction treatment and recovery, end-of-life decisions—and throws them in a pot to boil with a stock of megachurch morals and liberal assumptions. That’s not to say Kingdom isn’t engaging—Penniston’s moral arguments are often intellectually solid, even thought-provoking.
But they remain arguments in service of the playwright’s needs more than fully realized characters, despite strong efforts by director Greg Werstler and a nicely attuned cast of actors who give it a solid go. Plocharczyk, who absolutely inhabits the look and mindset of the late-salvation youth-pastor type, imbues Arthur with a degree of struggle in the second act that we need to see more of in the first.
And Black-Spence—though a winning presence in every Stage Left show in which she appears, including this one—isn’t quite yet negotiating the writerly leap (of faith) from corrosive, dismissive artiste to beatific convert that Penniston prescribes.
Stage Left Theatre at Theater Wit. By Penny Penniston. Directed by Greg Werstler. With Kate Black-Spence, Brian Plocharczyk, Don Bender, Kathrynne Wolf, McKenzie Chinn. Running time: 2hrs 10mins; one intermission.