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STAGE REVIEW : Dickey's 'Sermon' a Bully Pulpit for Bridget Hanley

November 19, 1992|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There is a pin spot on a Bible sitting silently, reverently, on a pulpit. The only other object on the bare stage is a large, rough-hewn cross made of planks, shimmering in the simplicity of its purpose and setting.

What happens as the lights come up on James Dickey's "Sermon," at Theatre West, is far from simple, but shimmers like the cross in its power and primitive beauty.

The full title of Dickey's poem is "may day sermon to the women of gilmer county, georgia, by a woman preacher leaving the baptist church." Yes, it's a poem. And it's a striking kaleidoscope of curious and commanding images wound through the Preacher's story of a young country woman's release from the pain of bondage by both religious hypocrisy and a male-dominated society that still exists, particularly in the narrow world of Dickey's South.

The Preacher, played by Bridget Hanley, speaks not only to the adult women of the congregation, but to the teen-agers and children in her audience. She is not shy. Nor is she complacent. Her first appearance, in a buttoned up cloth coat and a flat, tacky hat perched primly on the front of her head, is as deceiving as the sprightly choir singing hymns as rain pours down outside (on Andy Parks' evocative soundtrack).

The Preacher bars nothing from her lesson to the women. Not the agony of the young country woman's clandestine love for a traveling motorcyclist, nor her father's bigoted and pious anger, when he "screams like God and King James" and as she screams back. Nor does the Preacher keep from her listeners the woman's ecstasy in the act of love, from its discovery to the eventual outcome, and she warns her listeners to "take the pain you were born for."

Hanley, under John Gallogly's astute, bravado direction, never misses an intake of breath, a quick, riveting glance at her audience or the violent crescendos and sudden confidences of the writing. She spins across the stage, arms flying, squats unself-consciously beside the pulpit, runs through the audience, a remarkable re-creation of a Baptist preacher in the Deep South, as theatrical and transparent.

Dickey, one of America's most honored poets, also wrote the novel on which the film "Deliverance" was based. His writing here has the same guts, the same moments of thundering honesty, and the same magical wizardry with words. "Sermon" is lit by J. Patrick McCarthy with a glow that points up the production's perfect blend of actress, director and text.

"Sermon," Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Dec. 13. $12; (213) 466-1767. Running time: 1 hour, 5 minutes.

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