On May 1, about 40 members and friends of HAO attended a matinee performance of Strange Gods, followed by a Q&A and reception with the playwright and cast.
Catholic school-teacher Richard is engaged to marry Laura, a divorced atheist. To safeguard Richard’s standing in the Separate School bureaucracy, they must have a church wedding. But that requires his unbelieving bride to satisfy the Church — in the person of the stern and power-mongering Father Manning — that, while she is not required to convert, she will at least submit to certain of the Church’s dictates within their marriage.
This sets up the central conflict within the play Strange Gods. We watch Manning and Laura battle over the well-trodden ground of faith vs. reason, of patriarchal vs. modern humanist values; and we watch Laura battle Richard over her refusal to betray her convictions vs. his need to conform to the system. Along the way, Laura acquires an unexpected ally in the disgraced liberal Father Dorsey, and an enemy in the rectory housekeeper, the devout Mrs. O’Brien — almost a caricature of the obedient cradle Catholic. But we also see Father Manning’s amoral machinations within the politics of the diocese and school-board. In the end, the only character who has remained true to themselves is the atheist Laura — all the Catholic characters are shown as compromised in some way, torn among their ostensible convictions, their human needs, and the demands of their ancient (but still powerful) institution.
And yet Strange Gods is not, in intent, an anti-Catholic play. The playwright, Robert Knuckle, is a Catholic married to an atheist humanist, and much of the material in the play is based in some way on his experiences. Despite everything, Knuckle remains a Catholic, he says, because of his affection for the environment he was raised in, and his faith that there is still good to be found within the people of the Church. His target, rather, is the corruption and abuse of power, and the entrenched anti-modernism of the organization. Knuckle laments the fact that Catholicism has, if anything, become reactionary since the reforms of Vatican II. In a way, Strange Gods is Knuckle’s own 95 Theses — a protest from within, rather than an attack from without. (In an ironic sight-gag, in an early scene one of the priest characters is seen idly leafing through a book entitled Martin Luther).
Speaking of which: it seems to this (never-Catholic) observer that what the Church needs now is a new Luther to scare it to death — and a new Erasmus to show it what needs to be fixed.