Goose Island Theatre

at Avenue Theatre

It’s 1946, the United States is in a state of upheaval, and in a ramshackle trailer somewhere in Arkansas Becky Ann Tarbox and her brother Darrell live under the domination of their obsessively religious father. Becky Ann has just had a baby–a hideously deformed infant, the father of whom remains a secret even to its young mother. The Reverend Tarbox has come to think that perhaps his daughter’s offspring may be Jesus, come to earth again in fulfillment of the Bible’s prophecy. How else to explain the cryptic letters originating from no traceable source–on one occasion delivered by a mail carrier who has the appearance of an angel–instructing him to migrate with his family to Canada (Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan) and announce the phenomenon of the Christ child’s return? And how else to explain radios that broadcast without benefit of electricity, typewriters that compose unassisted by human hands, and a baby’s basket that moves around the room of its own volition?

Playwrights Larry Larson, Levi Lee, and Rebecca Wackler pose question after question, leading us down one path after another in their slowly unfolding narrative: Is Darrell really the war hero he claims to be or a deserter with stolen decorations? Is Becky Ann’s child the result of sexual abuse by her hypocritical father? Could that child–whom Darrell jocularly calls a vegetable when questioned by a customs official–be the son of God? By the final judgment, when the good are rewarded and the wicked issued their comeuppance, we see that the answers are not as important as the manner in which we arrive at them.

Tent Meeting, written in 1983, when the televangelist movement was at its height, could easily be played as nothing more than a diatribe against casuistic Bible punchers. Under the sensitive direction of David Whitaker, however, it emerges as a parable of true love versus the false, with the flimflam of the sly reverend and the mindless obedience of Darrell contrasted with the quiet faith of Becky Ann, for whom a baby need not be a messiah to be special. The result is a thought-provoking exploration of human nature, of how each person in need of a savior will manage to create the one most suited to his own interests. It also contains plenty of laughs–a letter to Tarbox advises, “Do not befriend an elephant keeper unless you are prepared to entertain an elephant.”

The cast is composed of relative newcomers to the Chicago theater scene–Kent Logsdon as the Reverend Tarbox, Harry Hutchinson as Darrell, and Tracey Atkins as Becky Ann–yet they build their performances solidly and compassionately on each character’s individual truth, mining the dialogue for subtlety and sympathy, with never a wink or a snigger of ridicule. Betsy Leonard’s realistic set and Dennis O’Brien’s clever special effects convey so skillfully the fine line between the mundane and celestial worlds that when, at the long-awaited tent meeting, the Reverend Tarbox exhorts us to join him in singing that most gruesome of revivalist anthems, “Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb?” we drone away with the old reprobate, certain that a bolt from the blue will set things right.

Tent Meeting marks the sixth production of Goose Island Theatre since its comeback in 1990 after a series of dormant periods. It’s a reaffirmation of the company’s reputation for innovative and intelligent productions of new works.