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Faith, politics fuel ‘Storefront Church’

For the past decade, playwright John Patrick Shanley has devoted himself to the divide between church and state. “Doubt,” his 2004 Pulitzer Prize winner, examined social responsibility through the lens of a church molestation. “Defiance” dealt with race and religion in the military.

“Storefront Church,” the third in the trilogy, may be the most compellingly contemporary of the three. At least that’s how it comes across in director Joy Carlin’s taut, handsomely staged and surprisingly funny new production for San Francisco Playhouse.

Politics, religion, a sour economy marked by predatory lending, sinking mortgages and gentrification – there’s a lot going on in this two-hour drama set in a Bronx borough, where Chester (the excellent Carl Lumbly), a preacher who lost his New Orleans church in Hurricane Katrina, plans to open a storefront church.

His benefactor, the kindly Jessie (a vibrant Gloria Weinstock), has mortgaged her house to provide space for the church. Now the bank’s ready to foreclose, and Chester, mired in a crisis of faith, can’t even muster the energy to open the doors and pass the hat.

At the center of this trinity of church, local government and big business – the bank is simultaneously planning a mega-mall where the locals were hoping for a community center – is Donaldo (the eloquent Gabriel Marin.)

A preacher’s son turned politician, he grew up on Jessie’s doorstep – and his mother holds the note on the soon-to-be-foreclosed property.

Shanley’s chief concern – whether faith can survive in our modern world – extends to his peripheral characters: Jessie’s husband, Ethan (the wry Ray Reinhardt), a secular Jew whose humor masks a deep distrust of the “small minds” in charge; Reed (an intense Rod Gnapp), a bank officer and wounded non-believer; and Tom (a glib Derek Fischer), the bank’s rapacious CEO. Carlin’s production achieves a fine balance of humor and tension as it cycles through their disparate worlds.

Bill English’s ingenious set of sliding doors and revolving inner spaces employs David K.H. Elliott’s lighting and Teddy Hulsker’s sound designs to enhance street scenes, banks and Jessie’s basement.

The cast is first-rate, and the production brings them all together in a gripping Act 2 finale as Chester’s church finally opens. Just when it seems that faith doesn’t stand a chance, Shanley holds out a glimmer of hope.

Miracles can happen, the playwright suggests – which brings his trilogy to a graceful ending, and makes “Storefront Church” a very good choice for the holidays.

REVIEW

Storefront Church

Presented by San Francisco Playhouse

Where: 450 Post St., second floor, S.F.

When: 7 p.m. most Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Jan. 11

Tickets: $30 to $100

Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org

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