The Crusade of Connor Stephens (Photo: Russ Rowland)
By Samuel L. Leiter
As you sit in the intimate Jerry Orbach Theatre waiting for Dewey Moss’s The Crusade of Connor Stephens to begin, you hear an oft-repeated loop mingling the hymn “True Love” with newscasts about issues of discrimination on the grounds of religious affiliation or sexual orientation for people seeking to adopt children. Potentially interesting as that subject is, it has nothing to do with Moss’s overwrought, thoroughly unconvincing play, awkwardly directed by Moss himself.
The Crusade of Connor Stephens is concerned with the character of Big Jim (James Kiberd), a charismatic, homophobic, Baptist preacher in the Jimmy Swaggart tradition. Big Jim’s son is a gay man, Jim, Jr. (Ben Curtis), married to Kris (Alec Shaw), with whom he adopted a little girl, Tessie. Connor Stephens, a teenage boy belonging to Big Jim’s congregation, hearing the preacher give a fiery, antigay sermon referring to his own son, Jim, Jr., (or just Junior) was inspired to kill the six-year-old Tessie, seriously wound Kris, and then commit suicide.
The play is set in Junior and Kris’s living room—designed by James Noone in West Elm-style—on the day that Junior and Kris’s beloved daughter is to be buried. Also being buried that day is Connor Stephens. Gathering at Junior and Kris’s are Big Jim himself; his submissive wife, Marianne (Katherine Leask); his outspoken, wheelchair-bound mother, Grandma Vivi’n (Kathleen Huber); Kris’s loving sister, Kimmy (Julie Campbell); Julie’s forthright husband, Bobby (Jacques Mitchell); and Big Jim’s congregant, Dean (Clifton Samuels), an athletic coach who worked with Connor.
Aside from depicting the suffering the tragedy has caused, the play seeks to contrast the narrow-minded Christianity represented by the obnoxiously self-righteous Big Jim and his obedient wife with the more accepting responses of everyone else, including probably everyone in the New York audience. Grandma Vivi’n’s vinegary outbursts, in particular, aimed at Big Jim, get much-needed laughs within the otherwise somnolent proceedings.
Big Jim and Marianne are exceedingly unsympathetic characters, especially the former, who has the gall to leave his granddaughter’s funeral early so he can preside over that of the boy who killed her. Big Jim—whose own mother calls him “an ass”—is such a creepy, bloviating phony, especially as hammily overplayed by the mugging, broadly gesticulating, cowboy-booted, and suntanned Kiberd, it’s amazing he’s gotten as far as he has.
Neither Big Jim nor Marianne has ever visited Junior’s home before or seen their grandchild; they’re present now only because of the media attention to the shootings. Given what we see and hear of Grandma Vivi’n, however, it makes no sense for her never to have visited her great-grandchild. But it’s only a blip on the play’s radar of incoming contrivances.
Marianne, much as she seems to resent Big Jim’s oppressive personality, keeps blathering about how she’s lost Junior as if she’s the victim of his homosexuality (a word, like “gay,” that’s never spoken) and couldn’t solve her problem by simply embracing him. Vivi’n tries to prompt such an act by disclosing a precisely similar relationship with her own son, Big Jim’s brother, but it’s just another artificiality. And talking of contrivances, Moss includes an incriminating letter. Remember those?
There’s no crusade to speak of at all in The Crusade of Connor Stephens, just the unimaginable act of violence an apparently normal boy, a star athlete, committed because of how he interpreted something Big Jim said in a sermon. It’s asking too much for us to accept that an otherwise normal boy would be so swayed by such a comment that he’d shoot, not Junior, but his child, and then kill himself—especially since the script offers nothing to explain Connor’s mental state. Without more context, we have little more than sheer melodramatic action designed to set up a synthetic clash of beliefs.
Some people left the theatre wiping their eyes, I admit, but the only emotion I felt was pity for the actors unable to form a cohesive ensemble in this well-intentioned but poorly staged, lugubriously paced, dully acted, emotionally forced, and awkwardly written drama.
The Crusade of Connor Stephens
Jerry Orbach Theatre
250 W. 50th St., NYC
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).