It’s often said in certain circles that some of the worst people you’ll ever meet are in the church. Granted, there are a lot of evangelicals who have done wonders within their communities and across the globe, particularly the hard-scrabble work of those who have devoted their lives and Christian service as missionaries. Even so, due to the fact that human nature is a tremendously fickle beast, there are still evangelicals who manage to inflict or dabble in the practice of what is commonly known as church hurt. And it doesn’t take long for this weapon to destroy a person to the point that the Great Commission – the three-fold biblical practice of going out into the world to make disciples, baptize, and teach – ultimately falls on deaf ears. In fact, the wounds of church hurt, in word or deed, can be so destructive, painful and vilifying that some dare not step inside a church ever again.
In Ingrid DeSanctis’ riveting, largely autobiographical drama Stained Glass, an O’Neill National Playwrights contest semi-finalist receiving a terrific regional premiere courtesy of Playground Theatre and the University of Dayton inside the Black Box Theatre of UD’s Fitz Hall, a young woman named Jewels (compelling Rae Buchanan) is the latest church hurt testimony. Even though she grew up adoring the enchanting biblical stories in Sunday School, particularly the Old Testament account of three men who survived a fiery furnace, Jewels has abandoned her spiritual roots based on the startling truth that her father, a Pentecostal preacher, had sexually inappropriate relationships for 20 years. When Jewels returns home to New Jersey for her father’s funeral at the same exact time of an impending storm, the past ultimately proves to be a huge kick in the gut. As if her homecoming wasn’t going to be sad or tense enough as funeral arrangements take shape, she decides to contact four women victimized by her father. Along the way, five fanciful characters – Tinkerbell (bubbly yet grounded Jada Gee), Moses (authoritatively friendly Chris Hahn), the Little Mermaid (beautifully expressive Michelle Hayford), Cinderella (sweet, concerned Jillian Mitchell), and Pinocchio (humorous Chris Jones) – offer flavorful, sprightly guidance within the framework of magical realism. As reality and fantasy collide, Jewels’ engaging journey of self-discovery, self-love, faith-building, and forgiveness remains insightful.
DeSanctis, Assistant Professor of Playwrighting at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA, creates a challenging, complex roadmap of shifting locales and sheer whimsicality, but directors Hayford, Jenna Valyn, and Hahn admirably join forces to ensure a quietly captivating experience ripe with intimacy, urgency, merriment, poignancy, and surprise. The strongest, most impactful moments arise in the uncomfortable exchanges between Jewels, dealing with her inner tumultuous storm, and the aforementioned women whose lives were altered by her father’s behavior (Val, Mrs. Clifton, Rose, and Sandy all seamlessly portrayed with excellently distinguished characteristics and varying moods by Hayford, costumed by Kehler Welland). In addition to the charming scenes of magical realism (including an unexpectedly gripping account of the Little Mermaid heightened by an emotive Hayford in the Act 1 finale), there’s also great interplay between Jewels and her mom (believably conflicted Amy Askins) and rebellious sister Tess (delightfully snarky Valyn). I question DeSanctis’ decision denying Jewels’ devoted boyfriend James (amiable A.J. Breslin at his most romantic) the chance to return to New Jersey with her for such a significant homecoming. Nonetheless, I find her intriguing examinations of the Bible, from Jesus saving the adulterous woman to the pivotal decision of Lot’s Wife to look back at the city she left behind, a central part of the play’s theological allure. The production is also bolstered by technical director Matthew Evans’ brilliant lighting design and wind ambience, Hahn’s atmospheric sound design, and Valyn’s efficient set design and character-conscious soundtrack.
One of the best new works Dayton has seen in 2019 and a topical character study against the backdrop of the #MeToo climate, Stained Glass strikingly resonates and is unquestionably thought-provoking. As Jewels’ mom tenderly reminds her, “Forgiveness is something mysterious. It’s hard to understand.”
Stained Glass continues through Oct. 26 in the Black Box Theatre of University of Dayton’s Fitz Hall, 1529 Brown St., Dayton. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday and 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Act One: 63 minutes; Act Two: 55 minutes. Tickets are $12 (general admission) and $8 (students and faculty). For tickets or more information, call (937) 229-3950 or visit udayton.edu/artssciences/academics/theatre/index.php. Also, a post-show talkback featuring DeSanctis will follow every performance.