Posted Online: Dec. 05, 2012, 1:25 pm

'Altar Call' passionate and persuasive

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By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com

Photo:
Angela Rathman stars as Maggie in the District Theatre production of 'Altar Call,' opening this weekend.
Melissa McBain's "Altar Call" is an intense, thought-provoking play that raises complicated, often uncomfortable, issues of sexuality, religion, faith and family. The District Theatre's current production presents the people that wrestle in this thicket with sensitive, compassionate and powerful performances.

Maggie Stone (played by an outstanding Angela Rathman), a 40-year-old minister's daughter, is trapped by a mix of the needs of her gay son, the demands of her Baptist father's church, and the desires of her physician husband. The tense action shifts in a single set between the sacred church and and the secular family dining room, and a story of hypocrisy and hurt truly explodes in a shattering, incisive second act.

Maggie's teenage son, John (Bobby Duncalf) develops an affection for church tenor Matt (Nicholas Waldbusser), who helps teach him to play the piano. Maggie's father, Pastor Silas (Jerry Wolking), is nervous about their relationship, and when he discovers Matt is gay (and is pressured by others in the church), he fires him and suggests he find a church in a larger city, where he won't stand out so much.

All the emotional issues of being raised in a church family, with a strict father, and failing to embody her dad's ideals and faith are heart-wrenchingly difficult for Maggie. We feel the acute pain and disappointment of Ms. Rathman as she sees the church's hypocrisy and lack of courage. At one point, she rails against the ridiculousness of what the Bible commands, and pleads for the day when everyone could love one another unconditionally and God would do the same.

Maggie also has to deal with an unhinged husband, a smug obstetrician who tires of his job and wants to quit, and who urges his wife to leave school and get a real job. "I don't need a feminist; I need a wife," wailed Patrick Gimm, as Dr. Alan Stone. Speaking for many, a rebellious Ms. Rathman bravely dreams of "the courage to say no -- to our husbands, our leaders, our pastors."

It's a tangled, prison-like web these characters must navigate, and Mr. Wolking is stellar in one of the most challenging roles. He's a supremely confident pastor, and speaks with earth-shaking authority, but his most basic beliefs are being tested -- acceptance, forgiveness, helping the disenfranchised. "What would Jesus do?," indeed.

Playwright Ms. McBain, a former Quad-Cities resident, interestingly and wisely frames this character not simply as an arrogant, unbending man of rectitude; we can see the goodness and conflict in Mr. Wolking. Michael Carron gives an impassioned, thunderous performance as an offended parishioner threatening to withdraw his financial support if the church condones this "deviant" behavior.

We can relate to the frustration suffered by the characters played by Mr. Gimm, Mr. Duncalf and Mr. Waldbusser -- who is particularly poignant. Liz Blackwell is strong as Maggie's mother, but occasionally stumbled on lines in the opening-night show I saw. Next to Mr. Wolking, she almost seems old enough to play his mother instead of his wife, but then all theater requires some suspension of disbelief.

The biting, bitter play -- which argues persuasively for tolerance and understanding -- continues at the District Theatre, 1611 2nd Ave., Rock Island, at 8 p.m. today through Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $15; call (309) 235-1654 or send email to tristan@districttheatre.com.