Somewhere in South Central Texas is a hollow where the relentless prairie winds deposit their found objects. There, among the tumbleweeds, are signs of human life: telephone poles, neon motel vacancy signs, chain-link fences, metal deck chairs, a wooden spool table, a Coleman lantern and a decaying Airstream trailer on blocks. In the backyard is the family business, the Blood of the Lamb miniature golf course.
The familiar yet funky authenticity of Robert Mark Morgan’s multifaceted set for “Jesus Hates Me” is filled with stellar images, from the Wal-Mart mannequin transformed into a crucified Jesus on a latticework cross that marks the 17th hole — we’re told the 18th hole is the Resurrection — to the impressively detailed Airstream.
Into this world, Wayne Lemon — former sitcom writer (“Grace Under Fire”), Norman Lear protege and first-time playwright — has mixed and matched the likes of characters as typical and unique as you’re likely to find in such places. A Texas Baptist preacher’s son and UT graduate, Lemon knows these people like the inside of his pickup truck.
Take Ethan (Justin Adams), an ex-high school football star with a blown knee, and his razor-tongued mom, Annie (Kathleen McCall), a still-attractive, Bible-obsessed, unmarried fortysomething. If Ethan doesn’t take up his brother’soffer to teach skiing and horseback riding at a gay resort in Colorado, he’ll likely drink himself to an early death without ever leaving Dodge; if he does take it, Annie will surely perish in one of her trademark fits of madness that draw equally from religious fervor and bipolar disorder.
Depression, it seems, is a way of life in this gulch. Ethan’s ex-high school sweetheart, Lizzy (Chelsey Rives), who still pines for him, serves up her own brand of redemption at the local watering hole she inherited from her papa. Her libations and homespun advice seem to keep even the most loco of the locals within the bounds of comedy, if not the law.
Lizzy’s younger brother, dishwasher Georgie (Michael Keyloun), who tried to commit suicide on his high school graduation day and succeeded only in destroying his larynx, no longer goes unheard with his electronic voice synthesizer.
But the most hyperbolic of the bunch is Boone (Craig Pattison), an uncouth, beer-swilling good ol’ boy whose cluelessness is all that saves him from numerous bouts with cuckolded husbands and their shotguns.
The only way the local cop, Trane (Marlon Morrison), can cope with all of this, as the sole African-American in town, is to walk softly (a do-rag under his 10-gallon hat and a joint behind his ear) and carry a big stick (his siren and his six-shooter).
Playwright Lemon, on the other hand, needs only his pen to disarm the audience with pointed one-liners and thoughtful existential observations. The audience laughs and hoots, mostly as intended, as director David McClendon alternately has his players talk past one another to the laugh track and then square off and get personal. This stylistic mix gives the story a hybrid feel, half sitcom, half drama. Both styles work on their own (there’s no shortage of talent onstage), but the transitions in character are unnecessarily abrupt.
Given the comedic nature of the play’s end, a melodramatic device is called for to grease the wheels of the transitional moments.
Considering the mercurial makeup of the intended audience (Gen-X), perhaps Lemon has hit upon a genre that — as irreverent and at times as profane as rap, yet filled with pertinent issues and rebellious politics — will bring them into the theater for cultural conversation. After readings at the Southern Writers Project, Hartford Stage and Steppenwolf Theater, the world-premiere version of “Jesus Hates Me” knows its audience. With the right marketing and some organ music, it could be a hit.