Say amen – SF Playhouse takes it to Church

Storefront 2
The Divine Plan for Salvation Church holds its first service in San Francisco Playhouse’s Storefront Church by John Patrick Shanley. The cast includes (from left) Gabriel Marin, Derek Fischer, Rod Gnapp, Carl Lumbly, Ray Reinhardt and Gloria Weinstock. BELOW: Lumbly and Marin address politics and spirituality and the battle between noise and stillness. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

In many ways, John Patrick Shanley’s Storefront Church, now at San Francisco Playhouse for a well-timed holiday run, is less about the battle between the material world and the spiritual world and more about finding the most personal of solutions to the stress and pull and darkness of life: being still.

In such a hectic world, stillness seems practically revolutionary, but that’s where the Rev. Chester Kimmich (Carl Lumbly) finds himself: in stillness waiting for an answer or a way to cross the giant black hole that has opened up before him.

The interesting thing in Shanley’s script, and in director Joy Carlin’s marvelously entertaining but deeply felt production, is that being still in the modern world comes with consequences. You can’t pull away from the world for any length of time without the world coming to look for you. In the Reverend’s case, his withdrawal into the realm of contemplation has real-world consequences. The $30,000 he borrowed from his landlady, a woman of great faith, was supposed to refurbish a storefront church. But months later, with the money spent, the church is still not open, and the landlady is facing foreclosure from the bank.

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Is Chester being irresponsible by taking the money and not paying his rent? Or is his devotion so true that stillness and contemplation truly is the only way he can find a solution to his spiritual crisis?

The real world comes calling for Chester in the form of Donaldo (Gabriel Marin) the Bronx borough president who has a personal investment in the Reverend’s fiscal irresponsibility. It turns out that the clash between the ambitious politician and the spiritual seeker is just what each man needed to see himself and his place in the world a little differently.

Sort of a 21st-century It’s a Wonderful Life, weighing the value of the human soul against the human construct of commerce (aka greed), Storefront Church has the nobility of the big questions and the practicality of everyday life. On a fantastic turntable set (by Bill English), we spin through a gritty world of people struggling. Jessie (Gloria Weinstock) and her older husband Ethan (Ray Reinhardt) have financial woes and health concerns to deal with. Their different faiths – she’s a devout Christian, he’s a secular Jew – don’t cause conflict between them. If anything, they seem completely comfortable with their spiritual lives. It’s the money that’s putting on the pressure.

There’s no way that bank employees cannot be the bad guys in this scenario, but loan officer Reed (Rod Gnapp) is pretty sympathetic. Bank president Tom (Derek Fischer), on the other hand, is not. It doesn’t help that Shanley stacks the deck against him by 1) having him actually devour a gingerbread house during a meeting and 2) have him rather implausibly show up to a service at the Rev. Chester’s humble, unfinished church.

Somehow, though, it all works. No one is a monster here, and when the spirit begins to move people, the warmth and emotion comes as much from a simple gathering of people and their connection as it does from the religion itself.

In a way, that’s what theater itself does – gathers strangers, attempts to make them feel something, both individually and collectively, and leave a little bit different. In a broad sense, every theater is a storefront church, and right now the San Francisco Playhouse is shining with a little extra light.

John Patrick Shanley’s Storefront Church continues through Jan. 11 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$100. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Kimberly King casts a shadow in `Doubt’

Kimberly King (with Cassidy Brown as Father Flynn) plays the stern Sister Aloysius in the TheatreWorks production of Doubt, the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by John Patrick Shanley. Photos by David Allen

For a while, Kimberly King and her husband, Ken Grantham, were sort of the first couple of Bay Area theater.

From their Berkeley base, they performed all over the place – Berkeley Repertory Theatre, American Conservatory Theater, Marin Shakespeare Festival, you name it. They acted, they directed.

Then, like so many great local actors, they moved to Los Angeles and then to New York. When that got old, they decided to head back to the West Coast, but instead of returning to the Bay Area, they made a surprising decision. They headed to Washington, but not to Seattle. Four years ago they settled in the Puget Sound area and run the Green Cat Guest House and Bed and Breakfast just outside of the tiny town of Poulsbo.

But they have not been so consumed by their careers as innkeepers that they have forsaken the stage. They’ve managed to work at the Intiman and A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle, and they occasionally hit the road.

King made a memorable local appearance two years ago as Mary Tyrone in San Jose Repertory Theatre’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and she’s back to tackle the role of Sister Aloysius in TheatreWorks’ production of Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, now at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto.

“At first glance, Sister Aloysius can seem like kind of a stock character. We’ve seen terrifying nuns through the ages,” King says. “But the core of the sister, and the core of the play itself, is the central humanity of her character. Her belief is that she is doing good, trying to protect the children she deeply loves at her school, trying to make the world better. That’s what saves the character from being a stereotype. That’s also the place where we can hold up the mirror to ambition, human ideals, human conflict and, finally, human doubt. She may seem embedded in her belief system, but the playwright won’t let her stay there very long.”

Bay Area audiences had the chance to see Doubt two years ago when the Broadway tour, starring Cherry Jones in her Tony Award-winning role of Sister Aloysius, played the Golden Gate Theatre. King did not see that performance and so brings her own talent and background (she’s from Irish and Lutheran stock) to the role.

“Sister A is a woman to be admired and feared,” King says. “She is fiercely intelligent, passionate in her beliefs. Her guiding light is the care and nurturing, in her own way, of her flock, her children. She cares about them very deeply. Cares about the idea of education very deeply. Her strict and stringent guidelines remind me of maestros I’ve worked with. I’m not naming names, but they share a passionate belief they can affect a positive outlook in the world with standards that are important to adhere to. The question is whether those standards get in the way of other observations, other mindsets, let in other ways of being.”

In the play, Sister Aloysius must deal with a priest, Father Flynn, who may have abused one of the students. The incident, which also demonstrates a clash between the old ways and the new ways in the church in the early ’60s, around the time of Vatican II, shakes the Sister to her core.

“There’s a courtyard between the rectory and the convent, and as the Sister says, `It might as well be the Atlantic Ocean.'” King says. “That courtyard is an interesting symbol. Sister Aloysius is older than Father Flynn, maybe by about 20 years. She’s the old and he represents the new. Shanley doesn’t come down on either side. He holds up the prism that allows the facets of these people and the world outside to show. Part of the magnetism of the play is that the audience needs to decide, to have the discussion, formulate the views. There are no rights, no wrongs, no easy answers, no easy conclusions. Doubt is such a wonderful piece of writing. My respect for it grows every day.”

King is reveling being back in the Bay Area – one of her favorite places, she says – and says she and her husband moved to Puget Sound because, as Sister Aloysius says, “Life is perhaps longer than you think and the dictates of the soul more numerous.”

“Our souls dictated Puget Sound,” she says. “And they really do have 350 days of clouds and rain there. But I’m a California girl at heart. Some time, every day, we think about coming back here.”

For more with Kimberly King, please visit my theater page here.

TheatreWorks’ Doubt begins previews tonight (July 16), opens Saturday (July 19) and continues through Aug. 10 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $26-$64. Call 650-903-6000 or visit

Cherry bare-y

The great Cherry Jones is coming to the Bay Area at long last!

The two-time Tony Award-winner makes her Bay Area performance debut at the Golden Gate Theatre when Best of Broadway hosts the national tour of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Doubt. The show opens Nov. 7 and continues through Dec. 3. Check out for information.

I had the great pleasure of speaking with Cherry Jones (alas, no relation, but our monograms are nearly the same). You can read all about her Tony-winning take on playing Sister Aloyisus in my Nov. 3 Jones for Theater column here.

The demands of a juicy blog require that I provide additional, somewhat more salacious information than appears in our newspaper, so let me warn you: the following information deals with Cherry Jones, one of our finest actors in any medium, NAKED.

When he was in town to promote his ucpoming show Legally Blonde, director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell happened to mention that he had been skinny-dipping with Jones while they were working on Nora Ephron’s Imaginary Friends: A Play with Music in which Jones starred as Mary McCarthy and Swoosie Kurtz played Lillian Hellman.

Mitchell said that during a lifetime of seeing beautiful dancers’ bodies, he thinks Jones’ is even more beautiful.

I mentioned this to Jones, and she just laughed.

“I’m a skinny-dipper from way back and proud of it,” she said. “Maybe I’ll put that on my gravestone.”

I told her I wasn’t much for going full monty in public (or in private for that matter).

“Well, you’re missing out on one of life’s pleasures,” she said.

I didn’t talk to Cherry Jones only about the joys of jaybird nakedness. We talked about serious things, too, like how important the play Doubt is because it challenges the way people think about their perception of the truth.

We all sit, many of us, in our homes watching mindless, violent entertainment. I think we have to figure out how we can start spiralling up and not keep spiralling down. We have to challenge ourselves. Nobody wants to do that anymore. I don’t know how you get people to leave what is comfortable and easy. We’ve gotten so brilliant at pandering in this country, making sure we have everything to feel comfortable and easy. God forbid anyone should have to think or feel challenged. That’s capitalism: make people safe, comfortable and fat — and there’s no truth to any of it.

On the subject of being openly gay in show business, which is something that seems to have had no effect on the upward trajectory of her career, Jones said:

I came along in the gay rights movement at the right time. It was effortless for me. My parents had prepared me beautifully to be who I am. They let me know that no matter who or what I was, they would love me unconditionally. I’m a product of unconditional love. That makes it possible to be who you are because you know you have the support of the people who matter most to you. That’s the big lesson to parents. We all ask: what are the answers to the world’s problems? Well, let children know they’re loved. That’ll take care of 500 problems right there.

No doubt about it. Cherry Jones is one of the greats.