Katharine Venour, Ron Reed, Kaitlin Williams, and Brandon Bate in the Pacific Theatre production of Jesus Freak. Photo by Jalen Saip.
Katharine Venour, Ron Reed, Kaitlin Williams, and Brandon Bate in the Pacific Theatre production of Jesus Freak. Photo by Jalen Saip.

In his new play Jesus Freak, playwright Peter Boychuck challenges the age-old maxim to never discuss religion or politics at the dinner table. The results are mixed.

Giving a whole new meaning to the term “religious intolerance”, Boychuck frames his story around a daughter who, after finding religion, decides to reveal her new-found Christianity to her atheist family. Not surprisingly her first attempt at this revelation begins at the dinner table.

Boychuck piles on by having mom admonish her husband to not talk politics during the family gathering, which just happens to be taking place during the Easter weekend, one the highest of holy days for many religions.

Dad is a stubborn scientist, discarding religion because the existence of God cannot be proved. Her brother is gay and has endured the religious condemnation of his sexuality. Mom is a bit less polarizing as she reveals her own spiritual upbringing, but at the same time probes her daughter’s choice. Besides, mom just wants the family gathering to be a non-confrontational weekend as she deals with the aftermath of breast cancer.

But while the idea of turning the tables on the usual discourse around intolerance, widely seen as the domain of the religious, is an interesting idea, by act two Jesus Freak becomes repetitive. Arguments for and against religion are served in different, yet similar, forms, and Boychuck’s decision to give us a feel-good ending is, while a hopeful sentiment, ultimately unchallenging and largely unrealistic.

There are some bright lights though, in both mom’s admission about her childhood and in a particularly poignant moment as dad questions his place in his daughter’s new life. Unfortunately, mom’s revelation does not quite have the impact it should, and the emotionally resonant moment with dad comes so far towards the end it has little opportunity to be explored.

Mom (Katharine Venour) reveals to her daughter (Kaitlin Williams) her own brush with religion as a child in Peter Boychuck's Jesus Freak. Photo by Jalen Saip.
Mom (Katharine Venour) reveals to her daughter (Kaitlin Williams) a secret in Peter Boychuck’s Jesus Freak. Photo by Jalen Saip.

While much of its discourse may be one-note, there is some fine work being done stage.

Ron Reed’s transformation from headstrong scientist to sensitive father is heartfelt and as mom, Katharine Venour is believable as a woman dealing with a health crisis, desperately wanting to create joyful memories in a realization life is short.

There is an obvious sibling bond between Kaitlin Williams and Brandon Bate, emphasized by some of the lighter scenes as the sister and brother bicker and fight over the inconsequential. Williams also nicely captures her character’s internal conflict, trying to balance her newfound religion and her family’s beliefs.

Brian Ball’s realistic cabin setting is perfectly West Coast, lit by Jill White in equally accurate tones. It is perhaps surprising to see two fight directors – Ryan McNeill Bolton and Mike Kovac – credited in a dysfunctional family drama such as this, but it is a decision by director Morris Ertman which definitely pays off.

In the end though, while an agreeable family dramedy, Jesus Freak never breaks any new ground, with the real meat and potatoes missing at this dinner table.

Jesus Freak by Peter Boychuk. Directed by Morris Ertman. A Pacific Theatre production on stage at Pacific Theatre (1440 W 12th Ave, Vancouver) until March 23. Visit pacifictheatre.org for tickets and information.