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THEATER REVIEW Welcome to Jesus
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Scott C. Morgan, Windy City Times
2017-11-06

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Playwright: Janine Nabers

At: American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St.

Tickets: 773-409-4125 or ATCweb.org; $20-$38. Runs through: Dec. 3

As a damning allegorical indictment of enduring Southern racism, there are plenty of thoughtful and symbolic ingredients to be found in Texas-born playwright Janine Naber's Welcome to Jesus.

It's too bad that most of Naber's conceptual conceits come off as either dramatically undercooked or as a patience-testing mishmash in American Theater Company's world-premiere production.

Set in a fictional small Texas town named Hallelujah, Welcome to Jesus begins like a ghost story. Amid an unsettling darkness in the woods, a star high school football player named Paul Danver Jr. is accidentally killed.

Welcome to Jesus then plays out as a fragmentary domestic drama of a grief among members of the Danver family. Baton-twirler Dixie Danver ( Taylor Blim ) tries to put on a brave face amid the school-crush pawing of injury-prone football player Bud Henderson ( Theo Germaine ). Meanwhile Ma Danver ( Stacy Stoltz ) and Bud's father, Coach Arthur Henderson ( Josh Odor ), have both seemingly suffered mental breakdowns.

Complicating matters is the discovery of a dead body by the put-upon officer Mike Danver ( Casey Morris ), who is comically under the disapproving thumb of his father, Sheriff Paul Danver Sr. ( John Henry Roberts ). Mike thinks the body could be the much gossiped-about "Spook Woman Monroe" who terrified all the kids while growing up, but there's a much darker secret involved.

Amid all this confusion, the hoodie-clad "Him" ( Rashaad Hall ) wanders in late in Act I looking for his missing brother. Him is soon taken up by the town to be a temporary savior to lead the high school football team to a championship. The fact that his jersey number is "44" is an inescapable ( and obvious ) symbolic nod to Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America.

Director Will Davis' staging of Welcome to Jesus certainly works in terms of creepy atmospherics ( lighting designer Rachel Levy keeps things largely shrouded in darkness ). The actors also make the most of their dialogue to craft characters beyond the bare-bones symbols that Nabers largely throws to them.

In Welcome to Jesus, Nabers presents a deeply racist community where the residents cloak their hatreds in self-righteous religiosity, football fanaticism and hidden violence. The fact that Naber suggests how all of this passed down through the generations makes Welcome to Jesus very much a modern American horror story.

But the underdeveloped dramatic structure ultimately undoes Welcome to Jesus. And that's despite its initially intriguing obliqueness and puzzle-piece plot points.


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