You’ve seen the tabloid covers at grocery store checkout lines touting sightings of Jesus on everything from grilled cheese sandwiches to Walmart receipts. John Culbertson’s MESSIAH ON THE FRIGIDAIRE examines the two-sided phenomenon of such apparitions of religious figures and the people who flock from far-off lands to observe them. The source material itself is campy and takes too many easy shots at poor Southern folk. However, the Bridge Players Theatre Company puts on a thoroughly entertaining show, complete with dessert served at intermission for the already satisfied audience.
The Broad Street United Methodist Church is completely transformed into the trailer where Lou Ann Hightower (Cassie Greenberg) and her husband Dwayne (Tim Kirk) live and, as the title suggests, see the face of Jesus shadowed on their outdoor refrigerator after a neighbor boy’s hedge-trimming fiasco. Dwayne sees an opportunity for profit and involves Lou Ann’s best friend Betsy (Kori Rife) in an elaborate plot that draws thousands of religious fanatics to their backyard for weeks, hoping to share in the appliance’s miracle. The town preacher Reverend Hodges (Joe Mattern) is less than amused, but the villainous town councilman Larry Williamson (Chris Focarile) is all for the swarms of tourists throwing their money into the town economy, specifically his video store. In the end, it all gets to be too much for Lou Ann and the town of Elroy, South Carolina, but the audience learns that “God’s plan” is what prevails in the end.
The set is richly detailed, an accomplishment for the humble space, and this couples with the fearless performances of the actors to bring the viewer right there to Elroy with them. Cassie Greenberg, as Lou Ann, evokes both sympathy and pride as she endures her refrigerator’s newfound fame. Although she starts out mousy and cowed by Dwayne, Greenberg navigates Lou Ann into a modern-day, stronger Southern Belle by the play’s close. Tim Kirk also progresses smoothly as Dwayne, and he straddles the line between funny and obnoxious with his character’s innate airheadedness.
A quintessential scene-stealer, Kori Rife is laugh-out-loud hilarious as the outspoken flirtatious Betsy. She is especially vibrant during her scenes as the woman who hears the voice of the refrigerator Jesus. Also worth noting is the solid comedic timing of Joe Mattern as the old-fashioned Reverend Hodges, and the family affair of Jeanne, Zach, and Brian Wayman as a mother and son looking for a miracle and a mysterious stranger breezing through Elroy.
The show may be performed in a church, but MESSIAH ON THE FRIGIDAIRE’s fine actors strike that elusive balance between respecting religion and poking fun at the evangelical fanatics. Their performances, plus the added bonus of a delicious dessert, provide an enjoyable evening for theatergoers of all belief structures.
MESSIAH ON THE FRIGIDAIRE
by John Culbertson
Directed by Lou DiPilla
February 1-23, 2013 (February 8 Sign Language Interpreted)
Broad Street United Methodist Church
36 East Broad Street
Burlington, NJ 08016