From left, Akaina Ghosh, Linda Girón and J Riley Jr. play Spirit Gods in Shotgun Players’ “Feel the Spirit.” (Courtesy Leannna Keyes)

From left, Akaina Ghosh, Linda Girón and J Riley Jr. play Spirit Gods in Shotgun Players’ “Feel the Spirit.” (Courtesy Leannna Keyes)

‘Feel the Spirit’ explores challenges of faith during COVID

But Shotgun Players’ commission feels overlong and underdeveloped

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At the heart of Noelle Viñas’ Zoom drama “Feel the Spirit,” a Shotgun Players commission, is a troubled relationship between two women, Gabriella (Vero Maynez), a self-described Latina lesbian who’s the new pastor of the small Fairfield Christ Church, and her wife, Rebecca (Lauren Andrei Garcia).

Rebecca is currently living with her mother, who’s recovering from a hysterectomy, and because of the pandemic (the play takes place during the first three months of shutdown), Gabriella and Rebecca can see each other only onscreen.

It’s more complicated than that, though.

For one thing, Rebecca is pregnant.

Also, Gabriella is struggling to fit in at Fairfield. The congregation considers itself progressive, but Gabriella, who’s compassionate and open-minded, is a few steps ahead of most of the old timers there, politically and socially speaking.

Still, she’s determined to make this post work — but is she sacrificing her relationship with Rebecca, and her community’s needs, to do so? She insists that religious services remain digital in these fraught times; many parishioners — including the two elders with whom Gabriella meets regularly, Carleton (Fred Pitts) and Angie (Jean Forsman) — want at least some socially distanced get-togethers.

Torn between the emotional needs of the churchgoers and of her wife — not to mention the responsibility to safeguard the community’s physical health, the determination to keep her job and her commitment to her own conscience and spirituality — Gabriella is struggling.

All those issues would be plenty for one play.

Unfortunately, the playwright has set most of the action, with all its inherent and certainly timely conflicts, within the Zoom-confined context of the church itself. We in the audience are encouraged at times to turn on our video cameras (I didn’t) and switch to gallery view, as though we are the church attendees at a Zoom service, listening to Gabriella’s sermon. At one point we’re also encouraged to go to “breakout rooms” for five-minute discussions.(I didn’t, and nothing seemed to come from that anyway; the rest of us listened to a recording of “Closer My God to Thee” while waiting.)

During an early, long scene, Gabriella and the two representative elders hold a long and tedious discussion of pandemic-related church business, which finally leads to more profound matters.

The god to whom the increasingly agitated Gabriella prays is manifested as a dreamy, diaphanous vision of three (J Riley Jr., Akaina Ghosh and Linda Girón) who intone Deep Spiritual Thoughts in an elevated, breathy manner. It’s a nice idea that, onscreen anyway, doesn’t quite work.

It’s a relief to see a play that doesn’t pretend not to be on Zoom. And the cast, under director Elizabeth Carter, is strong.

Still, the really interesting scenes explore how faith can not only threaten a relationship but can challenge a believer to the core; the rest of this overlong (at almost two hours) play feels like window dressing, or an under-developed effort to be interactive.

“Feel the Spirit” continues through April 11; tickets are $8 to $40; visit http://shotgunplayers.org/online/article/spirit.

Jean Schiffman is a freelance arts journalist specializing in theater.

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