By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
|Photograph by Joel West|
In 1959, atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair sued the Baltimore school district in which her son William was enrolled, charging that officially sanctioned morning prayers in his classroom imposed religion upon the boy in a constitutionally protected secular zone. Her complaint is more or less re-enacted in an early scene of Richard Vetere’s new play, The Atheist in All of Us. Though Vetere’s atheist is named Marsha rather than Madalyn, the parallels of Marsha’s family dynamic to O’Hair’s are obvious. Here, for example, as in O’Hair’s life, the son on whose behalf Marsha fights in court grows up to be a Christian evangelist — a bitter irony for any atheist mother.
The Baltimore school district argued that young William — in the play, Matthew — could simply choose not to participate in the prayers, and was even free to leave the classroom if he wished. It took four years for the case to reach the Supreme Court, which, in its landmark ruling in Murray vs. Curlett, vigorously defended O’Hair’s position by asserting a rigid — some would say overreaching — interpretation of First Amendment principles separating church and state, equating freedom of religion with freedom fromreligion.
Not surprisingly, O’Hair became infamous throughout the Bible Belt and something of a minor celebrity in the cities, appearing on both the Jack Paar and Johnny Carson versions of The Tonight Show. To illustrate the contempt for — and the power of — O’Hair: In 1974, a pair of independent broadcasters, Jeremy D. Lansman and Lorenzo W. Milan, gathered 27,000 signatures on behalf of a petition to the FCC for space, on rural FM radio bands and TV stations, for minority programming — room that was difficult to come by, as religious programming more or less dominated many regional airwaves, even the educational outlets. Putting the zeal back in zealot, the National Religious Broadcasters and the Oklahoma Christian Crusade together spread a galloping falsehood that O’Hair and her organization (American Atheists Inc.) were behind the petition to knock religious programming off the air. After the FCC received some 12 million letters of protest from O’Hair opponents and detractors, the U.S. Congress authorized a $250,000 publicity fund to enable the FCC to deny that O’Hair had had anything to do with the petition.
American Atheists Inc. was burglarized repeatedly between November 1993 and April 1994. The following year, O’Hair, her other son, John Garth Murray, and her adopted daughter, Robin Murray O’Hair, mysteriously disappeared. (O’Hair was 76 years old at the time.) Though their bodies were never found, blood traces suggested that all three had been held hostage, and eventually murdered and dismembered, in an Austin, Texas, warehouse.
To this day, the separation of church and state enunciated in the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”) and the passions it continues to evoke baffle observers from such countries as England, France and Japan, where school prayer has never been an issue. Indeed, there is probably no debate more singularly and historically American than that concerning theological encroachments upon the municipal sphere, which today include everything from the prayer service that opens each congressional session to the “In God We Trust” enshrined on our bank notes to a current Supreme Court case involving prayers offered before public high school football games. And with 64 percent of the American population having some kind of church membership, the arguments are virulent indeed.
This is why — if and when Vetere’s play comes together — it could be among the more significant American works of the new century. The word promisingis generally employed by critics like the “Do Not Enter” sign on a freeway off-ramp. Not so here, where the promise is a large part of the event’s appeal.
Act 1 opens with a private investigator, orphaned-at-birth Charlene (Piper Henry), learning about the mysterious disappearance of a famous atheist and concluding somewhat intuitively that the subject of the news story is her own long-lost mother. Meanwhile, in a flashback on the other side of the stage, Marsha yanks her son Matthew (Rob Nigro) out of school, vehemently complaining that the morning prayers are curdling his brain and have no place in a public school. (Barbara Gruen’s mesmerizing performance endows Marsha with a blue-collar crustiness through which flow eloquent barbed speeches, punctuated by a smoker’s cough.) Shortly thereafter, back in the present tense, Charlene is visited by Marsha’s two adult sons, cleric Matthew and Johnny Boy (Russell Daniels), a slovenly soldier of misfortune, fighting (or at least talking) for “the revolution,” railing against the cult of celebrity and the machinery of consumerism, and all the while hitting on the woman who may well be his own sister. (It’s a shame he’s treated as such an emotional and intellectual clod, as his social complaints have some potency.)
“Can you find Mom?” the sons ask Charlene, who appears, comparatively speaking, spit-polished and ready for business. In a flash — or so it seems in this phase of the play’s evolution — they’re in Christchurch, New Zealand, where Marsha is ill and in hiding.
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