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 from religion.

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 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 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.

“I smell religion on you like puke,” Marsha says by way of welcoming her minister son, adding benevolently, “You pray for me, I’ll 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 Volken’s Spartan staging (probably a necessity for a company that was running three shows in repertory at the time of this viewing), Nigro’s 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 don’t already know the history of O’Hair’s ongoing harassment by religious thugs in America, you’re not going to get it from this play. You might guess it from Marsha’s paranoia, but there’s no scene to support her fears. And that’s 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 Marsha’s great-grandfather (Joseph Lennon McCord). All of which is a device allowing Marsha to discover a theology only slightly more nuanced than Waiting for Godot’s “The bastard, he doesn’t exist.”

But even if God doesn’t exist as a deity, Marsha learns, He’s all around and within us.

This is all well and good, but the story of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, and the America she actually confronted, is far more interesting. Marsha’s theological epiphany flirts with, then bypasses, an entire stratum of American culture: our faith and its permutations. The problem isn’t so much with what’s in the play as what isn’t. The Atheist in All of Us is as far removed from O’Hair’s battle with corporate religion as its New Zealand and lunar settings are removed from America. If, in some rewrite, the play ever returns to O’Hair’s native soil, it might begin to fulfill its promise.

LEX THEATER, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hollywood | Through June 1

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