|Photograph by Joel West|
In 1959, atheist Madalyn Murray OHair 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 Veteres new play, The Atheist in All of Us. Though Veteres atheist is named Marsha rather than Madalyn, the parallels of Marshas family dynamic to OHairs are obvious. Here, for example, as in OHairs 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 OHairs position by asserting a rigid some would say overreaching interpretation of First Amendment principles separating church and state, equating freedom of religion with freedom from religion.
Not surprisingly, OHair 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 OHair: 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 OHair 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 OHair opponents and detractors, the U.S. Congress authorized a $250,000 publicity fund to enable the FCC to deny that OHair had had anything to do with the petition.
American Atheists Inc. was burglarized repeatedly between November 1993 and April 1994. The following year, OHair, her other son, John Garth Murray, and her adopted daughter, Robin Murray OHair, mysteriously disappeared. (OHair 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 Veteres play comes together it could be among the more significant American works of the new century. The word promising is 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 events 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 Gruens mesmerizing performance endows Marsha with a blue-collar crustiness through which flow eloquent barbed speeches, punctuated by a smokers cough.) Shortly thereafter, back in the present tense, Charlene is visited by Marshas 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. (Its a shame hes 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 plays evolution theyre in Christchurch, New Zealand, where Marsha is ill and in hiding.
I smell religion on you like puke, Marsha says by way of welcoming her minister son, adding benevolently, You pray for me, Ill slit your throat. Of course, this raises the question of why Matthew turned to religion in the first place whether out of conviction or out of spite. Under Charles Volkens Spartan staging (probably a necessity for a company that was running three shows in repertory at the time of this viewing), Nigros understated, clenched-up performance raises any number of possible scenarios about his past.
Marsha does refer to stolen books and BMWs speeding away in the night, but if you dont already know the history of OHairs ongoing harassment by religious thugs in America, youre not going to get it from this play. You might guess it from Marshas paranoia, but theres no scene to support her fears. And thats strange in a play in which flashbacks are a part of the architecture. (One of them has Marsha as a young woman played by Jeana Blackman being jilted in a big way by a lover, thus offering a trite and weepy explanation of why Marsha lost her faith in God.)
The play settles into a family reunion/deathwatch in which Johnny Boy begins to melt at the sight of his powerhouse ma, and grows ever more pathetic as the action progresses. Meanwhile, Marsha slips in and out of comas, during which she visits a moonscape populated by a pregnant woman (Pamela Clay), presumably symbolizing rebirth; a romantic, gold-suited Voltaire (John Malone), who keeps repeating, in French, All nature cries out that God exists; a fanatical Martin Luther (Rich Embardo); a pragmatic Erasmus of Rotterdam (Steven Shaw); and Marshas great-grandfather (Joseph Lennon McCord). All of which is a device allowing Marsha to discover a theology only slightly more nuanced than Waiting for Godots The bastard, he doesnt exist.
But even if God doesnt exist as a deity, Marsha learns, Hes all around and within us.
This is all well and good, but the story of Madalyn Murray OHair, and the America she actually confronted, is far more interesting. Marshas theological epiphany flirts with, then bypasses, an entire stratum of American culture: our faith and its permutations. The problem isnt so much with whats in the play as what isnt. The Atheist in All of Us is as far removed from OHairs battle with corporate religion as its New Zealand and lunar settings are removed from America. If, in some rewrite, the play ever returns to OHairs native soil, it might begin to fulfill its promise.
THE ATHEIST IN ALL OF US By RICHARD VETERE | Presented by BLUE SPHERE ALLIANCE at the LEX THEATER, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hollywood | Through June 1
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Los Angeles.