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Spreading the Word

A skilled ensemble requires viewers to check cynicism at the door.

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Who will it be? Perhaps the wily veteran, Toney Q. Cobb. He probably knows a thing or two about stealing a scene. Or maybe it will be the young Virginia Commonwealth University student, Sabrina Gilbert. It says in the program that she is headed to New York City after graduation. Surely she’ll want to shine over this small-town cast.

It never happens. Not during the prologue. Not during the entire show. This is an ensemble in the best sense of the word. The cast sustains a sense of balance and generosity for two hours. The show triumphs because it creates a bubble of kindness that envelops the theater. All things seem possible. Even the technical flaws with lights and sound disappear.

The show consists of 11 unconnected stories. Artistic Director Derome Scott Smith’s script is not a nuanced exploration of religion. Instead, each story demonstrates how a belief in Jesus can overcome any problem. In time, we watch as faith conquers crime, drug abuse, alcoholism, war and racism. This is theater with a communal purpose and it serves this purpose well.

In the first scene, a mother (Holly Hill) and daughter (Gilbert) are driving to the beach when the mother falls asleep at the wheel. Two angels fly behind them. We know they are angels because each wears a white scarf. As the car rolls over, the angels protect the two women from harm.

One of the best scenes occurs across a clothesline held by two angels. Two women (Jil Wilson-Robinson and Kesha Oliver) snap at one another as they remove and fold their clothes. Suddenly the venom evaporates and they reconcile. The looks of friendship they exchange are heartwarming.

The final story, “Racism,” is a little long and could stand some trimming. It begins with Grandpa (Cobb) telling his grandson (Travis Fenty) about the power of religion. In a flashback, we see how the acceptance of Jesus can even repel a lynch mob. Of all the miracles, this is the most difficult to accept. But perhaps that’s the point. If the audience can accept the most unlikely of miracles, then the show has accomplished what it set out to do.

Elizabeth Whitewolf’s direction is responsible for the balanced feel of the show. This is difficult material to get right and she handles it with confidence. The scene transitions are especially graceful.

There’s a tangible sense of good will remaining in the air after the show. If you’re a religious skeptic, you can check your skepticism at the door, pick it up on the way out, and still have a warm feeling inside. Even cynical theater critics, conditioned to be suspicious of actors, might crack a little. S

“Tell the Stories” continues through Nov. 2 at Living Word Stage Company, 103 E. Broad St. Tickets cost $6-$12. 644-4030.

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