Life in small town South Central Texas is anything but dull in Jesus Hates Me, Wayne Lemon’s quirky dark comedy getting its West Coast Premiere in a beautifully acted and directed (by Oanh Nguyen) production at Anaheim Hill’s Chance Theater.

Ethan (the coincidentally named Chance Dean) was a champion high school football player until a busted knee ended any future as a college athlete and condemned him to a life of small town drudgery.  It doesn’t help that his bipolar 40something Bible-thumping mother Annie (Karen Webster) is either manic or suicidal (and only normal when she’s sleeping), or that his ill-mannered- recently homeless good-ol’-boy buddy Boone (Dimas Diaz) is going to be staying with them in their trailer, barely large enough to accommodate mother and son.

Annie owns (and Ethan works at) the Blood Of The Lamb Miniature Golf Course, which features a life-sized store mannequin Jesus-on-the-cross at its 17th hole. Fed up with this go-nowhere life, Ethan is contemplating accepting his brother’s offer to teach skiing and horseback-riding at a gay resort in Colorado (despite the fact that Ethan has never skied or ridden a horse in his life).

Moving away will mean not only abandoning his mother but leaving behind Lizzie, his high school sweetheart (Jennifer Ruckman), proprietor of Lizzie’s, a roadside bar inherited from her father.  Though Ethan and Lizzie broke up following her father’s death (and their one instance of lovemaking), she is still a part of his life, and the possibility of their almost unconsummated love reigniting is never far from the surface.

Adding to the complications are Georgie (Ben Green), Lizzie’s younger brother, and Trane (Timothy Covington), the lone African American deputy sheriff in the state of Texas.  Georgie, who works as a dishwasher at Lizzie’s, speaks with an electronic voice synthesizer, the result of his having blown out his larynx in a failed suicide attempt on his high school graduation day.  Trane is Ethan’s best friend, a highway cop who’ll let Ethan go with a warning and then pull a joint from behind his ear and offer his buddy a few tokes. (At least Trane has found a reason in life, something Ethan can’t seem to figure out.)

Jesus Hates Me’s first act is comically off-kilter, a sort of Del Shores’ Sordid Lives on acid.  Annie attempts to reattach Jesus to the cross with duct tape, a wind storm having wreaked havoc on the golf course the night before.  She later admits to shoplifting a mannequin head to replace the one belonging to “the woman caught in adultery,” blown away by the storm.  As to her other son being gay, well, can’t he just “fight those urges?”  And how dare anyone suggest that Jesus might have been queer.  “Lots of men live with their parents until they’re thirty!” Then there’s the matter of her performing a striptease in one of the local stores—all the way down to her bra and panties, and pole-dancing to music only she could hear.

Meanwhile, Boone has just lost his job blowing holes in the ground to make swimming pools (on his very first day at work) because “Technically, I might have blowed up a dog.”  He’s also being pursued by the funeral home-owning husband of a woman with whom he was having “Coffin Sex”—who got wind of the affair when he found Boone’s “man fluid” in one of his coffins.  (Boone’s philosophy: “Man just needs three things in life.  Pussy, beer, and … pussy.”) And when Ethan wakes up the next morning in his tighty-whities, he finds Boone outside in a lawn chair in an identical pair, having borrowed one of Ethan’s.  (What was he to do?  He’d left all his clothes behind in the funeral home.)

Things turn starkly realistic in Act 2, giving the cast (so offbeat/amusing in Act 1) the chance to strut their dramatic stuff.  Ruckman, a Chance Theater company member who’s never anything less than excellent (or gorgeous), is particularly powerful in the scene where Lizzy reveals just how much she loves Ethan, and the effect her father’s death had on their high school relationship. Opposite her, Dean (recalling another Dean named James) shows layers of pain under Ethan’s handsome exterior, especially when he explains to Lizzy his fears that their relationship is too right, too perfect, that Jesus is just setting them up for a fall.  (“You get cervical cancer and you die.”)  Dean later has another great scene opposite the hanging-from-the-cross Jesus mannequin in which he pours out his anger and frustrations at a God whose been f-ing with him for longer than Ethan can remember.

Chance company members Diaz and Webster have never been better, and that’s saying a lot. Diaz is simply mesmerizing as Boone, foul-mouthed, hilarious and heartrending at the same time, and the same can be said for Webster, who throws inhibitions to the wind as the deeply conflicted Annie, alternately middle-aged sex kitten and suicidal depressive.  Covington, a dynamic presence as Trane, is never anything less than completely real and spontaneous.  Finally, Cal State Fullerton student Green is heartbreakingly funny and touching as suicide attempt survivor Georgie. 

With Jesus Hates Me, Chance co-founder Nguyen adds another notch on his belt of directorial triumphs, molding his cast’s three-dimensional performances and working with his design team to create a visually striking production. Set designer Starlet Jacobs transforms the Chance stage into a dry dustbowl of a Texas town, with flower-festooned trailer, and seedy bar, and Jesus on a cross in front of a multicolored sky. K.C. Wilkerson’s vivid lighting design includes a particularly dazzling moment in which the audience suddenly finds itself surrounded by multi-colored Christmas lights.  Erika C. Miller’s pitch-perfect costumes and Dave Mickey’s moody sound design complete the vivid picture Nguyen has imagined.

Jesus Loves Me may not be “for all audiences,” i.e. probably not for those on the far right of the religious spectrum. On the other hand, the Chance Theater has a history of edgy, daring productions, and its audience knows they will not be seeing anything too sweet, at least not until December’s Little Women rolls around.  Though Jesus Hates Me does have its occasional sweet moments, it’s the acidic ones that make it such a treat.

Chance Theater, 5555 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.

–Steven Stanley
February 8, 2009
Photos: Doug Catiller, True Image Studio

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