Here’s a “No Exit” situation for you: a Bible-thumping minister, his born-again Christian wife and a dissipated, unrepentant agnostic, all forced to live under the same roof. And here’s the hellish part: They call themselves a family. Gip Hoppe, who originally penned this Sartrean standoff for Cape Cod’s Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, sets the stage in “Mercy on the Doorstep” for a debate about issues of faith and morality, personal liberty and independent values. But the plot’s contrivances make puppets of the characters, costing them sympathy and punching huge holes in their credibility.
It takes some pretty tricky maneuvering to set up the domestic arrangements for the three players in this familial drama.
Corinne (Laura Esterman) is the 50-year-old widow of a lusty old sinner who made a nice living selling vintage comicbooks and adult sex aids in the porno shop attached to their big old house. She’s a serious drinker with a colorful past, a choice vocabulary and a free thinker’s belief that everyone is entitled to go to hell in the handbasket of his or her choice.
Judging from the keen-edged dialogue he has put into her filthy mouth, this big-hearted, broad-minded reprobate is the playwright’s favorite. And thanks to Esterman’s brazenly honest perf, this great old broad is also the audience’s sweetheart.
Corinne’s beloved stepdaughter Rena (Jenn Harris) used to be as free-spirited as her parents — “You were a pistol,” Corinne reminds her — until she landed face down in the gutter. Clean and sober for six months, she’s back in the house with her new husband, spouting Christian pieties and threatening to reform Corinne.
Given the stiff dialogue and formulaic moral code with which he’s saddled her, Hoppe doesn’t seem entirely enamored of the character. And while Harris shows flashes of the spirited girl Rena used to be, she’s hardly convincing as the modest and pious bride of an evangelical minister.
Which leaves us with Mark (Mark Rosenthal), the squirrelly young preacher who sets himself up as the moral center of the household. Mark has a sad personal history and a touching belief in the healing power of his savior. But the kid is as dumb as a post, and his simple-minded preaching methods wouldn’t convert anyone with a brain in his head — let alone his shrewd mother-in-law. Rosenthal looks the part with his air of open-faced innocence and sweet confusion, but he can’t handle the clunky biblical idiom.
For all the characters’ flaws, it’s interesting to watch them trying to cope with the dilemma of sharing a home with an ideological adversary. Helmer Jim Simpson makes the most of the situation, setting up individual scenes as mini-battles that inevitably end in an emotional standoff. And when Corinne has the floor, he’s smart enough to clear away the furniture.
Hoppe has constructed elaborate plot mechanisms to keep the three players living under the same roof for more than a year when common sense tells us they’d run screaming from the house in less than a week. The problem is, these little mechanical details force the characters into actions that are unkind to the point of cruelty. The worst of these indignities are inflicted on Corinne, who is robbed of her home, conned out of her shop and forced to listen to Mark’s mindless preaching.
It’s behavior like this that gives Jesus a bad name.