at the Chicago Theatre Company

So Much Glory in God is not a play that incorporates elements of a gospel service, but a gospel service that incorporates elements of a play, a parable that illustrates the lesson delivered from the pulpit. Yet it’s not a parochial exercise, of concern only to the converted. Though this is superficially a tale of one restricted universe–that of a small south-side Chicago church–the dynamics reflected in the events of the play could be true of any organization whose business has become more important than the purpose for which it was created. In effect, Kevin Shine’s entire play is a sermon, both sacred and secular, that’s directed not at us but to us, that’s meant to spur us to action in accordance with its precepts.

The Reverend Adams has done well by his church, Noah’s Christian Habitat and Church of God, whose programs to aid the poor and address the problems of drug and alcohol abuse are so successful that they have attracted media attention and Adams has been appointed by the mayor to implement a citywide program. All is not orderly in Adams’s own house, however. Brother Jordan, a member of the church board, has taken it into his head that what the church community needs is not more social programs but a new building commensurate with its new prestigious position. To achieve his goal, he is not above the use of Machiavellian tactics, including trying to seduce the pastor’s daughter Staci. Recently returned from school, Staci chafes under the authority of her father, whose attention to his work has led him to neglect his own family.

Ironically, all these people claim to be doing what they do in the name of their Lord–and so they are, for Shine is no Protestant Christopher Durang, setting up cartoon hypocrites so that we can giggle at them. The temptation to put the self ahead of the job is all too human, and the Reverend Adams reminds us over and over that we in the audience should not think ourselves any less foolish or misguided than these characters–we are assumed to be members of the congregation, requested but not required to participate in the service. (His reminder was ignored by one audience member, who chortled “Cat Daddy!” at the sight of Brother Jordan preparing to put the move on the innocent Staci.) Nor does the leader of the flock exclude himself from his own caveats. “As the pastor, you’re put upon a pedestal,” he says. “People think of you as some sort of supreme being. But all you are is another servant of the Lord, and when you sin you must go to the Lord the same as they do.”

By the end of the play Staci has learned that there’s more to a relationship than “knowing where the buttons and zippers are,” Brother Jordan has confessed his personal ambition and humbly accepted the supervisorship of a house for the homeless (a sentence of hard labor indeed), the Reverend Adams has reaffirmed his love for his wife and children, and Noah’s Christian Habitat even gets a new church–though just to be sure we’ve got the overall message right, the pastor and choir give us one last reminder of the difference between God and mammon.

Though Shine has made every effort to avoid melodramatic exaggeration in his narrative, the nature of the morality fable tends toward unsubtlety, and his characters’ secular speech often comes off stilted and stagy–a flaw heightened by the performances of several student actors apparently recruited from Columbia College. The parts of So Much Glory in God that work best are those lifted directly from church ritual, particularly the music. Under the direction of Staan Stubbs and Ladonna Sims, the “Burkley Baptist Church Choir”–made up of the combined Malcolm X and Columbia College gospel choruses–delivers precision-perfect a cappella work and shakes the rafters.

As the Reverend Adams, Mario Andre projects not only the dignity befitting his character’s position but also a sensitivity to the cadences and kinetics of African American oratory (once likened by Paul Robeson to Hasidic chants) that made me wonder if Andre had been a preacher (he hasn’t). Shine has wisely cast himself in the pivotal role of Brother Jordan, a character who could easily slip into caricature. Shine keeps us aware of his character’s human vulnerability; this is no slick villain, only a man impatient to get his way. Other commendable performances include those of Claudia McCormick as the pastor’s mother, a woman wise enough to dictate policy to the Almighty himself, and Reginald Jackson as an ex-pusher telling his story to the members of the Just Say No association–of which we in the audience are also assumed to be a part.

So Much Glory in God is not a polished production–the technical staff was still struggling with light and sound cues the night I attended–but Shine has created with an eye to audience identification rather than spectacle. And while some aspects of his play stretch ingenuousness to the point of amateurishness, there’s no denying the earnestness and timeliness of its mission.