Jesus Freak (or Atheists are Assholes)

Pacific Theatre is presenting Peter Boychuk's Jesus Freak.

Pay particular attention to these two: Katharine Venour and Kaitlin Williams in Jesus Freak. (Photo by Jailin Laine Photography)

There are several plays going on at once in Jesus Freak. One of them is good.

In the story, a liberal family gathers for Easter weekend in their getaway home on one of the Gulf Islands. Susan and Alan’s adult daughter Clara, who is pursuing post-graduate studies in political science in Montreal, comes out as Christian. All hell breaks loose.

Act 1 could be subtitled “Atheists are Assholes”. Clara’s older brother Nate, who’s gay, accuses her of joining a hate group and storms off yelling when she tries to reassure him of her solidarity.

“A Christian? I’d rather she was dealing drugs”, says Clara’s dad Alan, who also refers to Christians as Nazis and to Christianity as a cult. At one point, Alan makes a surprise appearance dressed in an old Gandalf Halloween costume. He pretends to be a Wiccan priest and, with Nate, he mocks the supposedly foolish and derivative nature of Clara’s beliefs.

As Clara points out, this is all really mean and stupid. Let me add that it also feels completely trumped up—artificially inflated for the theatre. Even in these polarized times, I simply don’t buy these reactions as those of supposedly loving, intelligent people.

It doesn’t help that, under Morris Ertman’s direction, both Ron Reed as Alan and Brandon Bate as Nate overact in the early going, increasing the sense of artificiality.

Fortunately, Kaitlin Williams and Katharine Venour deliver persuasive and grounded performances as Clara and Susan.

Williams’s portrait of Clara is by far the strongest work I’ve seen from her. Walking through a production that often feels over the top, she is consistently raw, honest, and understated. In a passage near the end of Act 1, Clara describes a trauma she experienced before her conversion and Williams makes it real.

Venour finds all of Susan’s vulnerability and grit, allowing the character’s ongoing struggle with breast cancer to inform her portrait.

In Act 2, Boychuk’s script settles down and deepens into more sustained naturalism, which is where the play’s heart lies.

There’s still some distracting nonsense. Clara and Nate get into a physical fight over a deck chair, for instance—even though they’re in their twenties. And some elements, including the conclusion of Clara’s plot thread with her brother, are rushed. But Act 2 also contains some satisfying extended scenes: Susan struggles to understand Clara’s faith, and Clara finally hits back at her dad, which allows him to see her. (In the latter passage, Reed tenderly exposes the love that has been driving Alan all along.)

The physical production is also a bit of a mixed bag. Rick Calhoun’s sound design is sentimental: when Susan takes out an old family photo to show Clara, for instance, Calhoun can’t resist laying on tinkly music. But Brian Ball’s set is a kind of miracle: by angling the deck of the family’s cottage to create a form of forced perspective, it makes the cramped Pacific Theatre stage look spacious. The cottage’s smoky paneling and circular window could have been lifted straight from Salt Spring Island.

It’s a pretty set and, although it’s a bumpy ride, the script eventually finds its way home.

JESUS FREAK By Peter Boychuk. Directed by Morris Ertman. Produced by Pacific Theatre. At Pacific Theatre on Friday, March 1. Continues until March 23.Tickets.

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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