Imagine having the thing you most believe in – your faith, your family, your principles – taken from right under you. It’s a thing that’s nearly impossible to imagine. What would you do if it happened to you?
It’s a soul-shaking question approached numerous ways over in Steve Julian’s play "What Kind of God?" The focus: the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal and the price paid by its victims.
Seventeen-year-old Aaron (Brett Donaldon) lost his parents at a young age and grew up devoted to the Catholic Church, serving as an altar boy and preparing himself for life in the priesthood. His relationship with his parish’s priest Father Bart (Robert Keasler) is innocent enough, but quickly becomes strained after deeply hidden secrets about them both are revealed and the moral bounds of each are tested. We soon discover that the characters' secrets have led them to a life of silence – silenced by the church, silenced by people in power, silenced by money, silenced by their own fear. The consequences become dire in a dramatic twist of events that seem all too surreal to be true, but too true all the same.
It’s the first play in a trilogy, a sort of social movement within the theatre world, created by KPCC morning radio host and playwright/actor Julian, that addresses the unjust silencing of others. With themes of homosexuality, rape, religious corruption and more, "What Kind of God?" walks the line between incendiary and accurate, beautifully balancing drama with the kind of institutional questions that should make you question your faith, whatever it may be – or at least the aspects of your faith you blindly follow.
At times, it was a bit hard to watch the stuttering and pubescent awkwardness of the two characters Aaron and girlfriend Lisa (Emily M. Faris), but watching two actual teenagers for two hours would probably feel just as bad, their internal conflicts a bit melodramatic. The relationship between Aaron and Father Bart, on the other hand, was complex; surprisingly, you’re left rooting for Father Bart from beginning to end. He represents hope within a broken church and helps us understand the painstaking sacrifices made by men of the cloth, even through his faults.
On the other hand, Bart brings up a multitude of conflicts: should a man with these faults lead an entire congregation? Should he stand for moral righteousness and holy decree? What of his responsibility as a shepherd? He’s human and in a profession that shuns the morality that innately comes with being human. It’s this dichotomy that’s constantly brought to question – where will you stand?
Bishop Michael (Steve Julian) plays opposite Father Bart, helping to cover up numerous sex scandals and nearly provoking others. Julian based this character on Father Martin P. O’Loghlen, a Roman Catholic priest dismissed from the archdiocese in Los Angeles in 2011 for molesting a young girl, a priest who also happened to be Julian’s high school principal.
Bart and Michael, good and evil, their stories play out like a biblical story; the devil seems to be tempting a god that struggles to stay on a hallowed path.
It’s a personal story, this connection helping to make "What Kind of God?" an artfully crafted piece. A self-righteous play condemning an entire religion is what I expected, but I was pleasantly surprised at the thought-provoking circumstances Julian presented and the candidness with which he seemed to provide both sides their shot at redemption.
The set was gorgeous; a single wall provided the backdrop to a dimly lit hillside, a brightly lit home, a bare and barren church, and the use of space and light helped bring the entire audience along a painful ride.
And here's a "spoiler alert": you may hear a pin drop toward the end of the play – you and the audience will be watching with your mouths open wide.
What Kind of God is playing through October 30th at the Lillian Theatre in Hollywood.