At one point in this compact theatrical treasure, the narrator and son (Julian Parker) of the title’s eponymous main character says in exasperation, “I don’t want him dead, I want him completed!” But as in real life, “The Gospel of Franklin” won’t let you tidy up Franklin (Gavin Lawrence) into a neat little package. Instead we spend 90 minutes fighting competing impulses to both fall in love with him and wanting to ring his neck. The mastery of this play and playwright Aaron Carter’s skill is that these strong and competing emotions are manufactured so effortlessly.
Franklin is a man of God, or as someone more aptly describes, “a bible fortune cookie”, spouting idiosyncratic Gospel sound bites tailored to the moment.
We learn very quickly that he is not anyone’s run-of-the-mill bible thumper on-the-ready with compassion and charity. Certainly not so with his annoying job supervisor, whom he spares the biblical references and instead barrages with all sorts of threats, followed by outright lies in order to manipulate getting that annoying supervisor transferred to another line. This is one “Man of God” who won’t be pushed around by anyone.
The narrator is his son who hooks us in his seemingly impossible journey to come to peace with his father whom his mother divorced when he was only eleven.
His son poses to us the nagging question as to why his father had so many close friends who were young white men and barely any relationship with him.
With a minimal set that immediately establishes a setting of working class life, we live out one family’s implosions of religion, sexuality, money troubles, and that eternally difficult task of coming of age.
We meet many characters on the brink.
One is a young man who is struggling to contain his rage and guilt in the wake of his best friend committing suicide (Tim Frank).
Another young man (Keith D. Gallagher) is charged with homicide of his beloved infant son. When he begs and rages to his God to strike him dead rather than let him die in prison we feel as raw as he does..
Another is a young man (Rob Fenton) who finally announces that he has accepted his gayness and rejected faith altogether.
You don’t need to be a believer to feel God’s power over Franklin and other characters in this play. To tell you more about the story would be a huge spoiler. The Director, Robert O’Hara, playwright and cast deserve better.
I can say this---The telling of this tale is poetic and the 90 minutes fly by. It’s not only worth seeing but likely also this is a script that one would savor reading. If you like characters who capture you and bring you to their world in an instant you will love this play.
Thanks go to Steppenwolf for giving us a “First Look” at work that attempts and achieves telling a family’s story in the complex layers of the real world.
First Look Repertory of New Work 2013
Steppenwolf Garage Theater
For tickets: Go to the box office 1650 North Halsted, or call 312 335 1650, www.steppenwolf.org
July 29 - August 14, 2013
Photos: Emily Schwartz