Seven years after its 2005 premiere at Playcrafters Barn Theatre, Melissa McBain’s “Altar Call” gets a deserved revival by The District Theatre.
Although I didn’t get to see the first version, the District’s is dramatically riveting and heart-wrenching, but it still keeps a wisp of humor about itself.
The semi-autobiographical story pits Maggie (another strong performance by Angela Rathman) between her Baptist minister father (emphatically played by Jerry Wolking) and her gay son (newcomer Bobby Duncalf).
Frankly, I don’t know whether it’s an advantage or disadvantage to know McBain — a busy playwright-director-actress while here and on the faculty at Augustana College who lives now in Philadelphia — as well as I do.
Seeing her one-woman show, “Going Back Naked,” and having numerous interviews and conversations over the years, I’m very familiar with her life story. “Altar Call” is her speculation about what would have happened if her father had learned his grandson was gay.
I can so hear McBain’s voice, especially, but not just, in the character of Maggie, based on herself. Rathman, a longtime McBain friend and fellow actress, captures much of Melissa/Maggie’s spitfire nature, but Rathman firmly establishes herself in the role as well with her delivery and body language.
As her father, the forceful Baptist minister, Jerry Wolking is powerful. He masters the pulpit when behind it for the play’s sermons and keeps a strong posture during scenes in the family dining room.
A Black Hawk College student in just his second community theater performance, Bobby Duncalf keeps pace with the veterans and displays vulnerability as John, Maggie’s son. His character is developing an attraction to the church’s music intern, played by Nicholas Waldbusser. It’s nice to see Waldbusser break away from the many corny comedic roles he’s had over the years.
Other notable performances are from Patrick Gimm, as Maggie’s overworked and overstimulated OB-GYN husband, and Liz Blackwell as the wife-mother-grandmother, delivering some of McBain’s most cutting lines.
And it’s a nice touch that Melissa Scott, who played Maggie at Playcrafters in ‘05, is the offstage voice in a flashback scene.
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Suddenly a busy director, Bryan Woods nicely guides the cast through the waves of emotion in the show, leaving room for an occasionally humorous line.
Most of the problems I have with “Altar Call” are technical. Maggie delivers numerous asides to the audience, and the spotlight didn’t hit her sometimes until after she was finished. And fully realizing that the District space is limited, the transitions back and forth between the church altar and the dining room settings were a bit too lengthy. Still, kudos to the crew for flipping the dining room bookcase around to serve as a pulpit.
McBain’s dialogue avoids the cliches, with Wolking’s character shooting down the “it’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” axiom as trite.
On the whole, as a look into one woman’s real life and imagined experiences, and as a stimulant for a hearty debate, “Altar Call” is a must-see.