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God's Man in Texas

Francis Guinan and George Coe in God's Man in Texas
(Photo: Michael Lamont)
The title God's Man in Texas might refer to several different things: perhaps an angel sent to the Lone Star state to right some wrongs or help a soul to heaven. It could also refer to a very religious detective sniffing out some devilish crimes. But in David Rambo's celebrated play, the title applies to a Houston-area minister embarking on a journey between the real meaning of Christianity and the somewhat commercialized version we often see on our television screens.

The fortyish Reverend Jerry Mears (Francis Guinan) has been asked to seve as guest pastor at the mega-church of the Reverend Philip Gottschall (George Coe), founder of the Gottschall Church university, high school, ballpark, dinner theater, Cineplex, bowling alley, and world-wide cable broadcast facilities. The Gotschall organization is an enterprise larger than anything imagined by Jerry Falwell or Robert Schuler. Gottschall himself, still spry in his eighties, finds that members of his board and community are lobbying for his retirement. Mears, too, has heard the rumors and presumes he is being called in for a tryout at the coveted pulpit. Or is he?

Gottschall develops a love-hate relationship with his potential replacement, adding fuel to the fire when he enlists his sound technician and man Friday Hugo Taney (Ian Barford), a genial former drug addict, to keep tabs on the younger preacher. Though Gottschall has achieved all he set out to do and has won the reverence of his peers, he simply does not want to step down. His is a world of collection plate tallies, audience counting, and peddling Christianity to the public, while Mears wants to bring souls to God. The ensuing politics and mindgames are enough to drive Reverend Mears to wonder about his reasons for wanting the pastorship and, in the end, to question his faith.

Rambo's plot is simple, with few surprises. Under the direction of Randall Arney, the three-man cast manages moments of true breakthrough, communicating the strengths and fears of men called by God to minister. But one has to wonder why such a simple tale drags so much. The lengthy, scripture-inspired sermons of the two clergy characters do give the audience an authentic sense of being in a Southern Baptist church on a Sunday morning, but this authenticity ultimately becomes tiresome; this is, after all, a play rather than a religious service.

Francis Guinan's studied performance clearly conveys his character's devotion to God and his religion. The actor presents an entertaining, stock example of the Southern-bred, shoe-shined, suit-wearing preacher, albeit one with a doctorate in theology from Baylor University. According to published reports, Rambo wanted to show the kinship between sales and Christian ministry; Guinan, especially, seems to have gotten this message. He's nervous, sweaty, and steeped in fundamentalism, yet his compassion is discernible. Coe, a veteran of many stage, film, and TV character roles, gives a comical elder statesman performance, not too showy and not too memorable. Ian Barford has a quirky, Nicolas Cage-style rebelliousness that works very well as his character develops. What this dramatic comedy needs is better pacing, shorter monologues, and perhaps more fun references to things eccentrically Texan.

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