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The Battle Between Hubris and Faith: “God’s Man in Texas” as character study

The cast of "God's Man in Texas" consult over tea at Sierra Madre Playhouse

The cast of “God’s Man in Texas” consult over tea at Sierra Madre Playhouse

There is a memorable moment in the film “Oh God” when the deity, played by George Burns, shakes his head over a wealthy television preacher: “If what he wants is to make money, let him sell Earth Shoes.” The struggle between faith and mammon which comes with huge religious enterprises and megachurches is one worthy of examination.

And that’s what David Rambo’s “God’s Man in Texas” wrestles with: the positive, even saving energy such a community can provide, yet the potential for hubris, insulation and extravagance. Now at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, a polished, clean-lined production gives the audience food for thought.

Dr. Philip J. Gottschall, now in his 80s, has built an entire community around his enormous conservative church. There is a television broadcast, school from kindergarten to college, recreational activities, annual parades – a community at once welcoming and insular. His wife’s Bible study group contains the political movers and shakers of the Houston area. The take in the collection plate is in the thousands every service.

But Dr. Gottschall is in his 80s, and the board which runs the church’s enterprises is looking for an eventual replacement. After various try-outs, they seem to have picked Dr. Jeremiah Mears. Thus begins a struggle for the soul of this huge institution between the man who see himself in every part of the thing, to the man who wants to make it his own. Through it all, they are each assisted and given certain reality checks by Hugo, a devoted member of the church’s 12-step programs who provides the practical voice of the common man.

Ted Heyck gives Dr. Gottschall the right mixture of pronouncement, paranoia and earthly pride, as a man who cannot admit to his own aging, or that anyone else could really be as right as he is. Christian Lebano’s particular timbre of calm as Dr. Mears makes a fine balance against the intensity of Heyck’s character. Thoughtful, devoted, but increasingly frustrated, his demeanor as well as his lines underscore the differences in the approach of the two men to the same topic. Paul Perri is a hoot as Hugo, at once fragile and practical, silly and dedicated.

Director Nancy Youngblut keeps this very talky, often amusing piece visual, utilizing the tiny SMP stage effectively and creating a sense of a huge church out of nothing but a pulpit and the look in her characters’ eyes. This is aided by the particularly fine (if a tad wobbly) set by D. Martyn Bookwalter, which creates specific spaces with artful minimalism.

Obviously, this play leans a lot on sermons and talk of religion. Yet, the interest comes from the balance of those religious sentiments with individuals’ actions – and the purposes behind the words, when spoken. Even audience members who do not echo the passions of those onstage will find “God’s Man in Texas” an interesting, if not overly deep study of character and ethics.

What: “God’s Man in Texas” When: through May 18, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 seniors, $15 youth, $12 children 12 and under

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