Next Theatre Company

Joe Butler mysteriously disappears from a party celebrating his high school graduation. His worried parents eventually discover him preaching with a fringe religious sect, and he’s rumored to have effected a bona fide miracle. Unconvinced, the boy’s mother, Maggie, takes steps to restore her son to his former self, a mission with which her husband, Roger, initially concurs. They call in Peter Mills, a self-styled deprogrammer, to kidnap and counterbrainwash the young pilgrim, a draconian process that succeeds only in driving Joe to attempt suicide. Then Dr. Katz and her team of psychiatrists are summoned to practice their healing arts, which include chemical and electroshock therapies. But by this time Roger, observing his son’s physical and spiritual agony, has begun to wonder whether the cure might not be worse than the disease–or actually be the disease.

Nowadays the word “cult” calls to mind one of the more spectacular conclaves presented from time to time by the tabloid press as a threat, major or minor, to civilization. But though we may be reluctant to admit it, virtually all of our established religions can be traced back to eccentric folks shunned by “respectable” citizens. John Darago’s Charisma is an articulate, refreshingly unbiased view of a situation as relevant these days as it was in Caesar’s time: as hagiographic studies show, saints were often a trial to others. And the cult Joe joins is actually rather tame. Sermons are delivered gently and compassionately, the tongues in which the congregation speaks are graceful, their spontaneous “rolling” (possibly aggravated by the strychnine-laced Eucharist) is subdued, and as for the handling of poisonous snakes–well, that might be considered a bit extreme. But then so might many similarly unhealthy, if less dramatic, practices such as fasting thought to constitute proof of piety in earlier Christian days.

Indeed, the zeal with which Mills pursues his mission to “make my piece of the world right again” comes far closer to fanaticism that the noncoercive methods of the Reverend Hatmore, and the stupors and convulsions Dr. Katz induces bear an astonishing resemblance to the trances and chorea they’re meant to combat. But unlike Mills and Katz, who owe their livelihood to the promulgation of their beliefs–and unlike Maggie, who owes her self-image to them–Roger is free to consider all the possibilities. He even applies canonical tests to the miracle his son allegedly performed (and it passes on all counts). Inevitably, however, he’s led back to the argument that if, as his own Roman Catholic faith claims, the ways of God are beyond our comprehension, then how can he declare with certainty that the path his son travels is false?

By the end of the play, Roger has still not decided the big questions. “I didn’t know enough,” he says, “and the more I learned, the more I realized I could never learn enough. If I relied on faith, there was no reason for it, and if I relied on reason, faith would not save me.” But he realizes that he must decide the smaller question. Dispensing with both reason and faith, he follows his heart, and–knowing that with this choice his son will be lost to him forever–he surrenders him to the life he’s chosen, or that has chosen him.

Under the firm direction of John Carlile, the carefully selected cast for this Next Theatre production portray their characters with intelligence and compassion and never a hint of caricature. Nathan Anderson as Joe, Terry Green as the Reverend Hatmore, Nick Kusenko as Mills, Susan McLaughlin as Dr. Katz, and Linnea Todd as Maggie all speak squarely from their own truths, leaving us to distinguish victim from villain, superstition from sacrament; and Gary Houston’s sensitive and ironic Roger gives voice to the painful confusion of making that distinction. Contributing to the otherworldly ambience are the haunting melodies juxtaposed with traditional hymns performed by musicians Chris Farrell and Dawn Bach, and an eerie cameo by a pair of herpetological bit players theatergoers may recognize from last season’s Holy Ghosts.