David Hare's "Racing Demon" establishes its central debate almost immediately with a scene in which the Bishop of Southwark warns the Rev. Lionel Espy that parishioners have begun to doubt Lionel's convictions.
But while Lionel may have doubts about God, Ralph Piersanti's gentle, low-keyed portrayal at Theatre Hopkins makes it clear that he does have convictions -- they're just different from those of the bishop and, by extension, the Church of England.
Imbued with humility, Piersanti's Lionel is a concerned cleric who believes the rituals of the church are no longer relevant to most of his working class South London parishioners. Instead, he sees his job as offering more direct counsel to these struggling souls.
But the bishop -- played by Roland Bull as a hard-line bureaucrat who probably hasn't had personal contact with a parishioner since gaining his miter -- has other, more political, concerns. "As a priest you have only one duty," the bishop insists. "That's to put on a show."
"Racing Demon" is part of a trilogy Hare has written about British institutions, but under Suzanne Pratt's astute direction, Theatre Hopkins' production ensures that its issues aren't confined to one country or religion.
Hare tackles themes as broad as authority vs. integrity, and the nature of religious faith. The latter comes into focus when we meet the newest member of Lionel's team ministry, an eager young curate named Tony Ferris whose unquestioning faith is not only in direct opposition to Lionel's, but increases in intensity as the action continues.
Two things keep this play about religion from being unrelentingly preachy. The first is the humanity that infuses Piersanti's performance as well as that of Stephen Antonsen, who is laudably empathetic as Tony, a man whose sense of goodness can have villainous consequences.
Hare, however, refrains from creating clear-cut heroes and villains; that's the other factor that saves the script from preachiness. Tony and Lionel may both be men of the cloth, but as we learn from vignettes of their domestic life, neither is a saint.
Tony's very first scene shows him walking out on the girlfriend who has been his chief emotional support. As played by Gina S. Braden, this smart, caring young woman turns out to have far more in common with Lionel than with Tony, whose escalating evangelical streak horrifies her.
Nor does Lionel have a model home life; his dedication to his parishioners has often been at the expense of attention to his wife. Venetia Holland's portrayal, however, suggests that Lionel's exasperated wife has come to accept and understand her distracted husband. Similarly, Lionel has earned the loyal friendship of the other members of his ministry team (Robert Riggs and Graham Yearley) -- two kindly priests whom zealous Tony no doubt regards as weak.
"Racing Demon" is punctuated with short scenes of the principals alone in prayer, which director Pratt stages in front of a projection of a stained glass window. These scenes -- like the stagy didactic conclusion -- suffer from the sin of telling instead of showing.
But overall, the play offers a strong dramatic examination of the struggle between those who know all the answers (and have the clout of the establishment behind them), and the brave few who dare to question everything from themselves to God. "Racing Demon" is a play that could easily become more of a tract than a drama, but at Theatre Hopkins it's as moving emotionally as it is intellectually.
Where: Theatre Hopkins, Merrick Barn, Johns Hopkins University
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2: 15 p.m. Sundays, 7: 30 p.m. March 9; through March 16
Tickets: $10 and $12
Call: (410) 516-7159
Pub Date: 2/19/97