In the program notes of “Confessions of a Pulpiteer,” River Stage founder and artistic director Frank Condon – who leaves his position at the conclusion of this season – gives thanks to his “intelligent and open-minded audiences” for helping make the last 16 years “a truly wonderful ride.”
It’s Sacramento-area theatergoers who truly owe a debt of gratitude to Condon, however, for producing and directing seasons of consistently challenging and illuminating works that both entertain and inform.
“Pulpiteer,” the opener to the current Playwright’s Festival of New Works, is another of those great River Stage rides – an energetic, funny and moving staged reading of Lee Boek’s autobiographical play about his years as a traveling evangelist in the Sixties and Seventies.
In 1966, Time magazine and New England intellectuals may have been asking “Is God dead?” but a young Boek and the congregations he preached to in churches and under tents from California to Florida had no such doubts. A native of Los Angeles who grew up in the Sacramento suburb of Carmichael, Boek gave his first sermon at 12 and was on the road by 16. In the early ’70s, he achieved some measure of local notoriety as the host of “Brother Lee Love Survival Revival Hour” on radio’s KZAP.
In “Pulpiteer,” Boek addresses the audience about the genesis of his career as a Proselytizing Paladin, whose ambition to emulate those who had Bible, will travel, led him to seek a mentor as a teenager before carving out his own niche.
Honest and compelling, Boek’s story is graced with song (provided by Boek’s talented Public Works Improvisational Theatre colleague Mitch Greenhill and Jack Landron, who serve as an unobtrusive chorus of sorts), and personal details that range from his carnal incentive to marry young to the heartbreak of a young son with incapacitating epilepsy. As personal as Boek’s story is, it’s also the story of the social revolution occurring in mid-20th century America, with occasional historical references such as the 1960 Democratic National Convention and the emergence of Martin Luther King Jr. as a national figure.
As a preacher who frequently worked in the Bible Belt, Boek faced the hypocrisy of God-loving brethren who were still deadset on segregation.
But Boek confesses the real catalyst for his life-changing decision to abandon the hallelujah trail was his son, Daniel, who died in his 20s some years after being placed in a hospital where he could receive the constant care he required. Boek, who divorced, became a Rainbow vacuum-cleaner salesman, and an actor-director-playwright, using the improvisational skills he honed as a preacher to witness in an altogether different way. Boek currently serves as the artistic director of the Silverlake-based Public Works Improvisational Theatre.
Billed as a staged reading, director Peter Kors (and Condon) offer something closer to a full-blown play. It’s far from a static piece, with a solo actor in a black turtleneck sitting on a stool holding a bound script. FIrst, Boek infrequently refers to the script, but is more often up and about River Stage’s black box space – upstage, downstage, walking, dancing, singing. Yes, there is a stool and a script on a stand, but Boek is infrequently planted there. For being a few weeks shy of 69, his performance is remarkably energetic and animated as he relives the touchstones of his life as a man of God.
Though performed sans intermission, the time flies by. Boek’s heartfelt performance is boosted by wonderful music in which the audience is often asked to participate (“hymnals” are handed out with programs).
JUST THE FACTS
WHAT: The 12th annual River Stage Playwright’s Festival of New Works, featuring staged readings of Lee Boek’s “Confessions of a Pulpiteer,” and Alina Trowbridge’s “The Little Mermaid is Not for Children”
WHEN: “Confessions of a Pulpiteer” (8 p.m. July 16 and 17); “The Little Mermaid is Not for Children” (8 p.m. July 30 and 31)
WHERE: River Stage, 8401 Center Parkway, Sacramento (on the campus of Cosumnes River College)
HOW MUCH: $7 general; $5 students/seniors/groups/SARTA/League of Sacramento Theatres
MORE INFO: riverstage.org; [email protected]; (916) 691-7364