Playwright: Music/Lyrics by Harry Chapin, book by Tom Key and Russell Treyz, adapted from The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John, by Clarence Jordan
At: Provision Theater Company at the Breadline, 1802 W. Berenice Ave.
Phone: (773) 506-4429; $20
Runs through: April 11
Few outside of his home state likely remember Clarence Jordan nowadays. But in 1944, the Georgia farmer established an interracial settlement on his property, still in operation today. And his 'Cotton Patch' books recounting Bible stories in a regional context continue to draw readers today. In 1980, Tom Key adapted one of these for the stage, a project soon attracting the attention of cult balladeer Harry Chapin. The result is a storytelling festival for solo actor and string band.
Jordan's yarn begins with teenage newlyweds Joe and Mary Davidson of Gainesville, Georgia, stopping at a motel en route to Atlanta for a tax audit. All rooms are taken, but the manager offers them the trailer out back, where their first son is born amid strange skyward sightings by local diary farmers. Jesus Davidson's reputation preceding him in the Bible Belt, Governor Herod bombs the Davidsons' home-town church. (Did I mention that Jordan was a civil-rights activist?) After many more adventures, Judd Iscariot sells out his Bubba at the Believe-In-The-Bible national conference, Klansman ambush the van transporting the prisoner to jail, and Jesus is dragged into the woods, flogged and lynched.
Our own attitudes toward rural southerners could easily have rendered this material as grotesquely hee-haw as an Al Capp comic, but Cotton Patch Gospel is not just The Green Pastures in whiteface. Key approaches his topic with an eye to retaining its blend of whimsy and reverence. Place names in the Deep South often being as exotic as those of the Ancient World and the importance of genealogy as intense, the notion of Christ addressing God The Father as 'Daddy' soon becomes quite natural. Chapin, too, confines his mockery to those who would subjugate the anthems of their faith to personal vanity.
Under Jim Poole's no-frills direction, the versatile Timothy Gregory invokes an array of vividly etched (but never caricatured) personalities over the show's two-hour running time while projecting enough down-home charisma to make John Denver sound like Jacques Brel. He is backed by a combo of lively tunesmiths who quickly convince us that we are, indeed, in 'a helluva place to be heaven sent'.