Total darkness consumes the room, and sounds of crickets fill the air. A voice in the darkness sets the scene, transporting the audience to a small town in Texas. Suddenly flashlights turn on, and an engine sounds fills the space. A car crash occurs, and with that, the play begins.
American Theater Company presents World Premiere Welcome to Jesus
Written by Janine Nabers and directed by American Theater Company Artistic Director Will Davis, Welcome to Jesus follows a family haunted by the death of their youngest son and the high school’s star quarterback, Paul Jr. For this small town of Hallelujah, Texas, football is at the center, and the team’s success means everything. Without Paul, all hope seems lost, and the town is just looking for that savior.
In Nabers’ spin on the Southern Gothic, she presents the audience with a comedic horror about what might happen to a small, isolated, religious town in the face of tragedy. In collaboration with Davis, Welcome to Jesus has some truly frightening moments, and captures an uncomfortable essence that spikes the tension, inviting the audience to question what may come next.
Helmed by Davis, the design team collaborates to bring this isolated, grief-stricken town to life. Scenic Designer Yu Shibagaki covers the stage in a field of wood chips, which adds to the darkness, and helps emphasize the mysterious feel of the story. Hallelujah is set up as a town that is surrounded by a forest and throughout the play, characters travel through in search of something lost, or some even come to realize they are lost themselves. The woods represent the unknown, and the constant presence represented in the wood chips acts as a reminder that the “unknown” is always closer than one might think. Especially when combined with Sound Designer Jeffrey Levin’s soundscape of thunder and nature, the design further highlights the ever present unsettling feel that surrounds the town.
The colors of the football team are red and white, and the design team cleverly employs that color scheme throughout the stage. Costume Designer Melissa Ng utilizes the team colors in her design, and the back wall of the stage is covered in red home appliances and sports materials – such as baskets, footballs, and helmets. The team holds immense fame and power in the town, and the small clues in the stage picture subtly emphasize that feature.
Will Davis is known to utilize a physical mode of storytelling in his productions, and Welcome to Jesus certainly does not disappoint, beginning at the start of the play with the image of a car crash. Rather than building a car, Davis chooses an alternate route to simulate the event.
Collaborating with Levin and Lighting Designer Rachel Levy, Davis has each ensemble member carry a flashlight, which acts as the only light in the room. A car engine sounds, and the actors move about the space in a clump, creating the sensation of a car beginning to lose control, resulting in a loud boom. There is little tech - simply sound and the use of individual flashlights. However, the movement of the ensemble perfectly captures that image, not only creating the inciting incident for the play, but also cluing the audience into the primary mode of physical storytelling they are about to see unfold.
Davis masters the ensemble movements, as well as the individual. Another striking moment occurs with Dixie Danver (Taylor Blim), who is a flag twirler for the town high school. Right before the big game, Dixie takes the stage with her flag, and begins to spin. Red light surrounds her, and Dixie’s red and white pleated skirt fans out. The choreography is simple, but beautiful, and while scenes immediately before and after this particular one are full of tension, Blim’s moment is one of calm.
So much of Davis’ production rests on the collaboration and rhythm within the ensemble, and this group of actors rise to the challenge. The ensemble moments are clearly rehearsed and in sync, helping the tension and fear of moments like the car crash rise to the necessary level.
As the main romantic couple in the play, Taylor Blim and Theo Germaine as Dixie Danver and Bud Henderson share some sweet moments, and showcase a lovely stage chemistry. Raashad Hall as HIM holds more solitary moments as the “outsider” in the town, but shares a strong stage presence. The pain and loneliness he infuses into the character feels honest, making his story arc an exciting one to watch unfold.
Casey Morris and John Henry Roberts as Mike Danver and Paul Danver Sr. kick their scenes off with a hilarious start – showcasing a tense father and son relationship that feels so over the top that the audience cannot help but laugh. However, as the story takes a serious and dark turn, so does the relationship, and the duo play that range beautifully.
Funny, dark, and at times bridging on the side of terror, Welcome to Jesus is the perfect play for this time of year. As for Opening, it made the perfect way to celebrate the night before Halloween.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Note: An excerpt of this play appears in Theatre in Chicago.
Through December 3, 2017
Thursdays at 8:00pm
Fridays at 8:00pm
Saturdays at 2:00pm and 8:00pm
Sundays at 2:00pm
Run Time: 2 hours, with intermission.
American Theater Company
1909 W. Byron Street
Chicago, IL 60613
About the Author:
Lauren Katz is a freelance director and dramaturge, and new to the Chicago Theatre Scene. She recently moved from Washington DC, where she worked with Mosaic Theater Company of DC in Company Management, as well as directed around town with various theaters.