A ‘Temple’ worthy of veneration at the Aurora

By Lily Janiak, San Francisco Chronicle, April 21st, 2017

Aurora Theatre Company’s “Temple” invokes the pantheon of theater history.

Opening Thursday, April 20, Steve Waters’ play, making its U.S. premiere, dramatizes the decision by the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral (Paul Whitworth) about how to deal with Occupy protesters camped outside the landmark London church. As it does so, you detect echoes of “Antigone” in the way the laws of God conflict with the laws of state. You’re reminded of “Hamlet” as the dean volleys back and forth between contrasting sides, delaying and delaying taking action about when to reopen the church, which has been closed for two weeks, what he might say in his first homily after the closure, and whether to partner with the city of London in seeking an injunction against the protesters, which would most likely lead to their eviction.

Above all else, you might hear George Bernard Shaw in the way the drama pits progressivism against capitalism, in the characters’ quintessentially British restraint, in the way the dean answers urgent questions with droll koans about church history, each of them laden with three or four subordinate clauses. He is allergic to simplification, to charting any course of action or even speaking in a way that does not honor all that is at stake in a fraught, endlessly complex situation: “Leadership is not mere decision-making,” he tells Michelle (Sharon Lockwood), the cathedral’s verger. Wise words, but they don’t obviate the need for a decision, and soon.

Rich as its theatrical antecedents are, this gripping drama, based on real events in London in 2011, is also refreshingly contemporary. That’s not just because characters are always talking about whether they’re “trending” on social media. (There’s a peephole into every closed-door discussion in “Temple,” thanks to Twitter.) Playwright Waters frames right and wrong differently than do Sophocles or Shakespeare or Shaw. By the end of the play, you might find yourself agreeing with, or at least understanding, a course of action you would have found objectionable walking into the Berkeley theater. It’s an unsettling feeling, but also an enriching one. Isn’t this exactly what theater is supposed to do — make you empathize with a point of view you’re inclined to reject — yet so rarely actually does?

Tom Ross’ direction keeps the show relentlessly tense. It has neither intermission nor scene change, and the dean never leaves the stage. Yet he rarely gets more than a breath of a moment to himself. As the interruptions, the calls to action, the opposing pleas for attention mount, Whitworth as the dean paints a portrait of leadership that, while short on clear, efficient decisions that please everybody, models a less-appreciated quality: true decency and generosity under pressure. When for a moment the dean deviates from that modus operandi, the childlike shock Whitworth registers shows that something inside him has broken open. His performance makes for a stirring reminder of why so many find comfort in religion. The capacity for malevolence resides in all of us and must be kept at bay.

Supporting members of Ross’ cast are equally strong. Sylvia Burboeck gives a breakout performance as Lizzie, the dean’s new assistant. She’s so pathologically shaky in her first day on the job that you don’t know whether to pity her, laugh at her or wish someone would forcibly hold her still so she’d relax. But allowing you to underestimate her early in the play makes her small triumphs toward the end feel even richer. As the Canon Chancellor, the play’s most politically radical character, Mike Ryan is always a lit fuse; he feeds on outburst, and when his character can’t, in any given moment, stoke it, Ryan focuses that energy inward, making the chancellor look liable to immolate.

If cooler heads ultimately prevail in “Temple,” you leave the play with a much deeper appreciation for all the internal combustion that goes into presenting and maintaining priestly calm and dignity.

Lily Janiak is The San Francisco Chronicle’s theater critic. Email: ljaniak@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @LilyJaniak

Temple: Written by Steve Waters. Directed by Tom Ross. Through May 14. One hour, 40 minutes. $32-$65. Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. (510) 843-4822.

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