Temple, a U.S. premiere production at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, is a powerful exposition on how the religious officials of London’s St. Paul Cathedral reacted to the Occupy movement’s 2011 encampment outside Sir Christopher Wren’s renowned church. Artfully directed by Aurora Theatre’s Artistic Director Tom Ross, playwright Steve Waters’ fact-based one-act drama presents a well-acted and enduring chronicle of individuals weighing difficult choices of conscience when there is no acceptable resolution. By the end of the occupation at St. Paul’s, two church leaders will have resigned over the crisis.
Although the Occupy protesters had originally camped outside the neighboring London Stock Exchange, police forced them into the open square in front of the cathedral, bringing chaos, noise and refuse to its doorsteps.
As the play opens, on October 28, 2011, the cathedral has been closed by the demonstrations for two weeks. But the dean (a standout performance by Paul Whitworth), leader of the cathedral and chairman of the Chapter, the body of clergy who collectively make administrative decisions, wants to reopen for prayers, yet appears incapable of deciding whether to do so, whether to join with the City of London to evict the protesters, or whether to minister to the Occupiers.
After a sleepless night, and aided only by an apologetic temporary P.A. with real smarts underlying her nervousness (terrific Sylvia Burboeck), Mr. Dean (his actual title) is ill-equipped to cope with the complexities of 21st century society, even a cell phone. Hamlet-like, he agonizes over every small decision as the frenetic drumbeats and shouting from outside make him long for his prior post on the Isle of Man. Although Mr. Dean has the good heart of a true religious believer, he is a man beset by doubt, a tragic figure.
The Dean accepts the resignation of the younger Canon Chancellor (effective Mike Ryan), whose political sympathies lie with the protesters and who opposes any course of action that might result in police violence. No such considerations inhibit the brash, determined City of London lawyer (impressive Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) who expects the Dean to join the City in initiating the injunction process that will lead to eviction. The interfering Bishop of London (first-rate J. Michael Flynn) is a gadfly full of ameliorating advice, but without direct jurisdiction or responsibility. The countervailing views of how to react to the Occupiers are articulated cogently and persuasively by the participants.
Although the basic messages of the Occupy movement are mentioned, there is no real discussion of the goal of Occupy, nor do any members of the protest appear. The focus is entirely on the religious leaders, who remain self-imprisoned in an exclusive wood-paneled conference room overlooking the Italianate towers of St. Paul’s (scenic design by Richard Olmstead).
Temple’s view of the arcane administration and history of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which, at first blush, would not appear to be enough to mesmerize Bay Area theatergoers, has enough universal appeal to keep one absorbed in the characters’ tragic dilemmas as they confront a situation outside their realm of expertise and comfort. With fine writing and excellent acting, Temple succeeds in posing hard questions that lack satisfactory answers, while enticing its audience into the quagmire.
Temple runs through May 14. For information, extended performance dates and tickets, visit the Aurora Theatre’s website.