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Fine acting gives ‘Temple’ life, but topic gets lost in distance

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From left, the Canon Chancellor (Mike Ryan), the Dean (Paul Whitworth) and the Bishop of London (J. Michael Flynn) air their grievances in Aurora Theatre Company’s U.S. premiere of “Temple.” (Courtesy David Allen)
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It’s no surprise that the cast of “Temple,” in its American premiere at Aurora Theatre Company, is excellent — Aurora has always showcased fine actors.

But in this case, they’re downright phenomenal.

In fact, they’re so good that they make a rather dry and too-talky drama come to life.

British writer Steve Waters based his 2015 play on an actual event: In 2011, Occupy London, chased out of its encampment at the London Stock Exchange, relocated to the grounds of St. Paul’s Cathedral, sending church leaders into a tizzy.

The Dean of the historical church took the unprecedented step of closing down operations temporarily.

The Canon Chancellor, sympathetic to the Occupiers’ cause, resigned.

The City of London eventually evicted the protesters, but not before, presumably, plenty of soul-searching on the part of all concerned.

Waters has imagined a confrontation among three real-life figures: the principal character, the Dean of the Church (played by the astoundingly gifted Paul Whitworth), the Canon Chancellor (Mike Ryan) and the Bishop of London (J. Michael Flynn).

And the playwright imagined that confrontation on a crucial day: the day when Dean has finally decided to reopen the church and celebrate the Eucharist. At the same time, he and other church officials are preparing for a press conference to announce their plans regarding Occupy. But what exactly are their plans? The various points of view and crises of conscience, and the human dynamics involved, comprise the drama.

Added to the mix are fictional characters: Leontyne Mbele-Mbong as a haughty government official, Sylvia Burboeck as a timid but strong-minded new secretary to the Dean, and Sharon Lockwood, familiar from many comedic roles, in a beautifully limned serious one here, as the virger (a church administrative position).

It is up to the deeply ambivalent Dean to decide how to proceed. “It’s always been about the prophets versus the priests,” the angry Chancellor tells him. “Right now, the priests are hiding.”

The problem is, for us Americans — especially those of us unfamiliar with the history, politics and hierarchies relating to this iconic 1,400-year-old Anglican church, and considering that it’s years after the Occupy movement — it’s hard to care about this particular moment of truth for a clergyman who can’t decide what God wants him to do.

In this terrific production, directed by Tom Ross, we can’t help but empathize with these fully embodied characters.

REVIEW: Temple
Where: Aurora Theatre Co., 2081 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes May 14
Tickets: $32 to $56
Contact: (510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org

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