Chicago Theater Review: KEYS OF THE KINGDOM (Stage Left Theatre at Theater Wit)

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by Lawrence Bommer on January 17, 2015

in Theater-Chicago

ONE MIRACLE TOO MANY

A very righteous offering from Stage Left Theatre, Penny Penniston’s world premiere Keys of the Kingdom is a well-intentioned attempt to build bridges between ideological opposites: a creative lesbian muralist and the self-appointed men of God who run a repressive evangelical megachurch. The play’s point, it seems, is that our humanity—as embodied in sheer, unconditional compassion–should transcend divisions over same-sex marriage, abortion, and the spreading of sin in a secular state.

Kate Black-Spence as Irene in Keys of the Kingdom by Penny Penniston. Photo by Johnny Knight.

In short order, Penniston drives home the blatant differences between Irene—a tough-talking dyke accompanied by her protective wife Paige (McKenzie Chinn)—and the Iowa superchurch run by famed pastor Ed (Don Bender) and his guilt-stricken assistant Arthur (Brian Plocharczyk). Ed is convinced that God told him to hire this feminist pagan to paint the ceiling of his office suite, a poor man’s Sistine Chapel. Though Ed leaves it to the Almighty to inspire Irene, after reluctantly accepting the commission, Irene turns to Arthur for an idea. (So much for Irene’s integrity as an original artist.)

Kate Black-Spence as Irene in Keys of the Kingdom by Penny Penniston. Photo by Johnny Knight.Triggered by his own remorse over having reduced his girlfriend to a vegetative state after driving drunk years before, Arthur suggests that Irene paint Saint Peter denying Christ three times. (According to the play’s novel interpretation, Christ was actually telling Peter to doubt him, rather than warning him not to. The reason for this is not convincing.)

Penniston loads down her metaphorical characters with Job-like problems presented in arguments, not action. Arthur’s middle-aged wife Joann (Kathrynne Wolf) finds herself unhappily pregnant: After having already brought seven children into the world in a previous marriage, Joann wants out of the birthing business. Arthur just wants to be a dad. As if that’s not affliction enough, Arthur has kidney disease but, out of shame for his past, has told no one (though his weekly dialysis treatments should have been a clue). He needs a donor—and perhaps here too the Lord (acting through Penniston) will reveal his plan.

Kathrynne Wolf as Joann and Brian Plocharcyzk as Arthur in Keys of the Kingdom by Penny Penniston. Photo by Johnny Knight.

So why not pull off a miracle? Sadly, the author is not content to let these opposites heal each other. At the end of the first act she throws in a genuine and non-negotiable heavenly intervention: Doubtful, sinful Irene, the proverbial “fish out of water” whose paintings are dark and sad because she has yet to be “saved,” is granted a piercing vision of abundant angels. Replacing drugs with divinity, this newly minted “Agnes of God” spends the second act transfixed with the vision, a changed soul whose blood type—a coincidence perhaps more than a miracle—matches Arthur’s.

Kate Black-Spence as Irene and Don Bender as Ed in Keys of the Kingdom by Penny Penniston. Photo by Johnny Knight.

Seldom has a play rushed so recklessly to a resolution in reconciliation. The impulse is praiseworthy: It’s redemptive when seemingly polarized people unexpectedly do good to and for each other. But these happy results are utterly bogus without the presumption of free will. Penniston’s manipulative machinery allows not even an illusion of independence. If it takes a miracle to make a lesbian love a Pentecostal, just crank up the wind machine, the portentous music, and flashing blue-and-white lights.

Kate Black-Spence as Irene and Brian Plocharcyzk as Arthur in Keys of the Kingdom by Penny Penniston. Photo by Johnny Knight.

Then, because the playwright completely forgot about the issue of Joann’s unwanted child, she clumsily ends the play with a pandering outcome that will please the liberals as much as the “miracle” 40 minutes before had ministered to believers. There’s something for everyone here, if you overlook cascading contrivances and a suspension of logic as much as disbelief.

Giving in to wishful thinking and catering to audience expectations makes a happy ending very suspect. It’s the more regrettable because Greg Werstler’s five actors always threaten to improve on this meretricious make-believe and Andrew Hildner’s elaborate set deserves an equally plausible play.

Brian Plocharcyzk as Arthur in Keys of the Kingdom by Penny Penniston. Photo by Johnny Knight.photos by Johnny Knight

Keys of the Kingdom
Stage Left Theatre
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 3
ends on March 28, 2015
for tickets, call 773.975.8150
or visit www.theaterwit.org
for more info, visit www.stagelefttheatre.com

for info on Chicago Theater,
visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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