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St. John’s divine diversity

Jules Becker
St. John’s divine diversity

Does Jesus embrace all kinds of love? In Lyralen Kaye’s remarkably affecting play “St. John the Divine in Iowa,” he does.

In fact, a barefoot black Jesus unassumingly tells heroine Reverend Alex  “I love lesbians.”

Whether this Episcopal minister receives prophecy or not, she does embrace all kinds of love in her Sunday morning sermons. Will that embrace extend to her own daughter Sarah’s love for a woman?

This is the focus of Kaye’s intriguing play, now in a smartly low-key Another Country Productions premiere at Boston Playwrights Theatre through Sunday.

Another Country Productions takes its name from a pioneering novel by gay black author James Baldwin. Not surprisingly the company is committed “to being a catalyst for inclusion in Boston” –an inclusion embraced by the minister, at least in her preaching.

As Reverend Alex gets to know Younger Alex, her maternal support for Sarah faces off with her reservations as a representative of St. John’s Episcopal Church. Those reservations are intensified as Sarah struggles with Younger Alex’s unequivocal admission that she is poly-amorous — even if her primary love is for Sarah. Complicating the dynamics even further is Sarah’s conflicted father Charlie, who likes Younger Alex but seems opposed to gay marriage.

To her credit, playwright Kaye and skillful director Julia Short never turn “St. John the Divine in Iowa” into a sensationalized melodrama. Instead, Reverend Alex’s inner conflict as mother and minister develops convincingly as the pressures brought by her conservative church move in a collision course with her determination to support her daughter’s needs.

The play could benefit from some trimming. For example, the repeated tense scenes between Rev. Alex and church official Frances about vestry members upset with the minister’s frequent pro-gay sermons. Husband Charlie, if not a stereotypical stoic male, ought to have more opportunities to participate in Rev. Alex’s heart-to-heart moments with Sarah and Younger Alex.

 Even so, Kaye’s play moves steadily toward the minister’s coming to terms with her own feelings. Will she attend their wedding? Will she officiate? Audience members should hear the ring of authenticity in her decision.

That authenticity comes through just as clearly in Kaye’s performance as Rev. Alex as in her well-researched play. Kaye catches both the minister’s certainty in her sermons and her profound reservations about  Younger Alex’ free lifestyle.

Caitlin Berger has a natural emotional richness as Sarah, both in romantic moments with Younger Alex and in heated exchanges with her mother. Meghan Rice conveys Younger Alex’s striking cockiness and contrasting vulnerability. Berger and Rice are young talents with big futures ahead.

Joan Mejia makes a very loving diversity-friendly Jesus, particularly when he cradles the reverend to reassure her. Thanks to his smartly understated performance, religious and non-religious theatergoers alike will wish for spiritual guidance from such a visitor.

Alan Dary needs to show more character development as Charlie, though he convinces in the early going listening sympathetically to Young Alex. Rachel Fischer-Parkman ought to be more intimidating as Frances in warning of a possible no-confidence vote about the minister. Judy Sclarsky seems more of a caricature than a savvy gay patron as Bar Woman.

St John the Divine — earlier known as John of Patmos — proves a smooth fit for the church and the title of the  play. Exiled to the Greek island of Patmos and persecuted by the Romans, John wrote of divine revelation. Clearly he was an outsider for whom inclusion was a distant ideal.

Another County Productions embraces inclusion in “St.John the Divine in Iowa.” Kaye’s balanced play and Another Country’s moving premiere make a timely call for that kind of understanding.