DAVIDSON – Davidson Community Players has done it again! The popular Lake Norman region theatre company opened its 2019 season with a powerful dramatic production designed to be thought-provoking and entertaining. “Benedictions,” a gripping drama performed in two acts, delivers it all.

I always look forward to Davidson’s season premiere. It may not be the most-popular play in its repertoire, but I think “Benedictions” is the most rewarding. Over the years, plays like “Wit,” “Outside the Wire,” “Flyin’ West” and “How I Learned to Drive” have been stellar, conveying introspective, gutsy themes.

Musicals make us feel young at heart and a comedy will lighten our day. I also love the kind of a meaty, introspective play with a theme you can sink your teeth into and that, perhaps, will even make you squirm. “Benedictions,” by North Carolina’s own Judy Simpson Cook, will do all that.

Some patrons might remember that Davidson Community Players produced Cook’s play several years ago. This time, Director Sylvia Schnople found a stellar cast that delivers its message with guts. Bravo!

“Benedictions” is the story of Jesse Warren, a respected, well-liked Presbyterian senior minister who seems to be handling everything well in her life. She’s happily married to her college sweetheart and they have two great, rambunctious sons.

The entire cast is superb. They’re all familiar to area audiences, having performed not only on Davidson’s Armour Street stage, but with other groups in Charlotte and in nearby towns. Even youths who have risen from teenage productions now trample across the main stage. Everyone deserves a resounding round of applause.

Masterfully, Cat Rutledge plays Jesse Warren. Adeptly, Christian Casper performs the role of her husband, Lee. Their sons are delightfully portrayed by Wilson Rouse as Christian and Luke Miller as Shepard. It’s a joy to see how effectively these actors convey the life of an ordinary, active, happy family.

Jean Kadella plays Agnes Day Richardson, a pillar of the church and Jesse’s faithful friend. Agnes Day knows her scripture but also imposes her own brand of interpretation. “When Jesus said, ‘Suffer the little ones,’ did he mean it literally?” she demands.

It’s great to see Kadella and Rutledge perform together. They are natural and polished figures onstage and banter effectively with each other. “I’ve been keeping company with God for a long time and I haven’t the vaguest idea what his will is,” Agnes Dey acknowledges.

Then there’s Ray Ritchie, the parish treasurer, played by Alan Martin, who creates divisive tension. His dogmatic interpretation of the Bible creates a hypocrisy that Jesse has to face. Will the church accept homosexuality?

John Pace has been bouncing around area stages since he was a little kid. He’s been in a couple dozen plays over the past 10 years. Now he handles the role of David Mack Kelly, a tormented gay man, with aplomb.

Kelly loves the church and longs to serve it in any capacity, “before I become a corpse or an atheist,” he says. Kelly, who also knows his scripture, now believes he is “the interpreter of the foreign language the church has become.”

Therein lies Jesse Warren’s challenge. And her faith is put to the test. How to deal with the sexuality of a young man she likes while upholding her role in the church. Then an unimaginable tragedy is added to the mix.

Gripping their seats and squirming, the audience holds its breath. The show is performed on a thrust stage designed by Phil Rouse, so the actors are right in their face. There’s even more fantastic theatre magic. A resplendent stained-glass window that does its own tricks! You have to see it to believe.

“Benedictions,” at the Armour Street Theatre in Davidson, may be seen this weekend and next before closing on March 10. Thursday, Friday and Saturday night performances are at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees begin at 2 p.m.

Connie Fisher is a freelance writer.

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