Mark Brokaw came to the Guthrie Theater from New York as a director known for mounting plays with bare stages and superior acting. His Guthrie debut only furthers that reputation. “Racing Demon,” British playwright David Hare’s peek behind the scenes of the Anglican church, is an excellent vehicle for Brokaw’s sensibilities.
Full of lofty philosophical speculation and good people wrestling with their consciences, Hare’s play was not made for spectacle, and the Guthrie’s production doesn’t give it any. On a set of relentlessly gray flooring with an equally drab backdrop, scene changes are effected with little more than a couple of chairs or a table whisked on and off.
Brokaw’s austerity makes plenty of thematic sense: This is a play about stripping bare the human side of the church. “Racing Demon” is basically Theology 101 draped in the guise of a political thriller. The play’s primary antagonist, the young and zealous Rev. Tony Ferris (Lee Mark Nelson), thinks the Anglican church has settled for moral platitudes and Sunday social gatherings, and he upsets the ecclesiastical apple cart with his fervent questioning.
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Quality acting brings it all off. Nelson takes Ferris from humble rookie to religious revolutionary, demonstrating a remarkable emotional range. Charles Janasz and Stephen Yoakam provide some comic relief as a pair of goodhearted fellow vicars, and Enid Graham (as Tony’s ex-girlfriend) throws in some welcome common sense. As a priest who has jeopardized his career by expressing ambivalence toward God, John Horton exudes a tricky combination of dignity and weariness (even while his character’s ungodly self-control sometimes makes him difficult to root for). The play itself continues to deliver an impressive intellectual wallop.