A fascinating, intensely relevant play with an exceptional cast, San Francisco Playhouse's production of "Storefront Church"(http://sfplayhouse.org/sfph/storefront-church-2/) is a gift from a company that until its recent move to the current venue was a tiny storefront theater itself.
Company founder/artistic director Bill English says in the program notes: "...as we remember how recently we were... down a narrow hallway and up a steep flight of stairs, it's a great pleasure to celebrate the smallest of community institutions, whether religious or of the arts, that dedicate themselves selflessly to lifting the human spirit."
John Patrick Shanley's 2012 "Storefront Church" is the completion of his trilogy, which includes the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning 2004 "Doubt" (the film version, with four Oscar-nominated principals - Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Viola Davis, Amy Adams - was directed by Shanley), and 2005 "Defiance." The three plays deal with religion and morality in the context of contemporary politics and sociology.
The setting is the Bronx, but every word could apply to today's San Francisco, with its mass eviction crisis.
How contemporary and how local is downright shocking when the curtain goes up and Bay Area theater icon Ray Reinhardt old, feisty Ethan with strong will, motor mouth, and a weak heart is pleading with Rod Gnapp's curiously damaged, barely alive bank official Reed not to have overdue mortgage payments cause the eviction of the family.
Emerging suddenly from a pot of Yiddish shticks, Ethan becomes Elijah to thunder at the "just doing his job" bank clerk:
"You will pay a price for this in the court of human truth, mister! That court convenes in a man’s soul and nothing can stop it! You will wake up in pain for the things you do!" Little does he know that Reed is well beyond pain already, and yet... no, no spoiler will be given here.
Before the second act's breathtakingly intense showdowns, twists and turns, the first act spends time on setting up a complex situation: Ethan's wife, Gloria (Jessie Cortez) - who is baking cakes for everybody, giving Ethan the hope that regularly indulging will hasten cashing in his life insurance, saving the house posthumously - has been donating money generously to a renter (Carl Lumbly), a Pentecostal preacher, whose church was destroyed by Katrina in New Orleans.
Enter Bronx Borough President Donaldo (Gabriel Marin), a well-meaning, half-innocent politician, who in various ways is connected with the other characters and is sucked into the situation, knowing full well that there are all kinds of conflicts of interest lurking in the dark.
All these complications fade against the confrontation between Donaldo and the preacher, who has spent the money, but cannot open the church because he is paralyzed by "a hole in the ground in front of him." Donaldo, whose late father was a preacher himself, but his faith is weakened or lost, ends up preaching to the preacher... without much success.
There is more, much more to set up before magician Shanley can have all the balls in the air, but then he juggles them amazingly, never dropping one, although the character of the bank president (Derek Fischer), pivotal to the intended (but not actual) resolution, feels more abstract and bloodless than the others.
Matters of big business, morality, decency, priorities, faith-lost, faith-in-abeyance, faith-hoped for, etc. come and go, flash by, come close to overwhelming with talkiness, but Shanley's skill and brilliant sense of humor more than save the play. The "Christmasy" all-around resolution is almost too sweet, but definitely not saccharine; too many ambiguities left for that. And, what the hell, it's THAT time of the year.
Besides Reinhardt, there is another theater legend involved: Joy Carlin as director, keeping everything in motion even when the dialog is of religion, politics, and ideas, not of action.
The basic - but impressively revolving - set is of Bill English's design. Although the revolving stage is 400 years old (constructed by hydraulics engineer Tommaso Francini for Marie de Medici in the Palais du Louvre), only a few months separate this squeak-free wonder from the Playhouse's old, storefront theater facility of a postage stamp without any embellishments.
For the company, in the luxury of the Kensington Park Hotel it must feel like a permanent THAT time of the year.