Sheri Wilner’s new play Kingdom City, which got its world premiere at UCSB this month, is at once a critique of the oppressive nature of conservative Christian communities in the United States, and of the assumptions that many liberals bring to questions of censorship.
Anne Torsiglieri portrays Miriam Bloom, a brash New York director who moves to Kingdom City, Missouri, with her writer husband, Daniel (Jason Andrew Narvy), so that he can work on his novel away from the city’s distractions. To the Blooms, Kingdom City, Missouri, is the middle of nowhere, but, as we find out, that does not mean it is without distractions.
Miriam is offered a directing job by the local high school, and she accepts, only to be told that her play selections are inappropriate for the students of Kingdom City. Urged on by her husband, Bloom represses her fury at this censorship and settles for one of the most commonly performed plays in high school, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
Upon casting the production, Miriam meets Katie (Lydia Rae Benko), Crystal (Chase O’Donnell), and Matt (Trevor Wade). Katie and Matt are both “churchy”: puritan ring wearing, youth group goers who have been persuaded to believe that “casual kissing,” among many other things, crosses the line of Christian abstinence. Crystal, on the other hand, represents the opposite extreme—an overzealous, nearly psychotic theater-obsessed narcissist.
When the play calls for one passionate kiss, Luke Overbey, the town’s Youth minister, approaches the school with his concerns. The principal of the school decidedly deems the play, again, “inappropriate.” This ignites a culture war between Bloom, her students, and the rest of the town. The New York Times covers the scandal only to further infuriate Luke by portraying him as a repressive Puritan fundamentalist. As tensions rise, the characters adapt, and the audience becomes confused about who to believe, and about whose side to be on—back and forth it goes from Miriam to Luke, and from Luke to Miriam.
This oscillation of sympathy is a direct result of the performers’ skill. Miriam represents a liberal cosmopolitan world, but she can be irritating and intolerant, while Luke, who symbolizes evangelic Christian conformity, manages to be likable—at least some of the time. This back-and-forth confusion is brought to life by the students and Daniel Bloom (who befriends the suspicious minister), as they try to decide whether or not to accept what they’ve been raised to believe, or to embrace what they feel is morally right.
Although we classify ourselves as a free America, where our own personal choices should be the deciding factor in our actions, Kingdom City resurrects the ongoing issue that is censorship. In our paradise that is Santa Barbara, in a small theater at UCSB, one finds oneself hoping that somewhere in the middle of the country, where life is so drastically different than it is here, that real world students and people can be as brave as Matt and Katie, or even Crystal. The rest of the audience must have felt similarly, because, upon exiting the performance, one could hear several people say, “Oh my god, that was so good!”