In The Atheist Mother, a new drama in its world premiere production, playwright Willard Manus takes on the famous case of Murray v. Curlett, which challenged the policy of mandatory prayers and Bible reading in Baltimore public schools. The “Murray” in the case was Madelyn Murray O’Hair’s son William J. Murray as plaintiff. He had come home from his Baltimore public school reporting that classes began each morning with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. As a resolute atheist, she recognized the unconstitutionality of such a practice, based on the First Amendment banning establishment of religion.
Her case was joined to Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), and the U.S. Supreme Court, in a ringing 8 to 1 decision (Potter Stewart dissenting), upheld her position under the doctrine of separation of church and state. Her notoriety led Life magazine to name her “the most hated woman in America.”
It’s a good thing the playwright fictionalized the story for dramatic purposes. The protagonist is named Maggie Mitchell (Taylor Donlan), and her son is the unaltered Billy (Carlos Chavez), sometimes referred to in the play as William. Madelyn Murray O’Hair (1919-1995) was a notoriously abrasive figure with a complicated personal life who sadly met a horrific end. Billy (b. 1946), in fact, later in life got religion, veered rightward politically and even became a Baptist minister. He and his mother made a permanent break. In the year of her death he published a book called Let Us Pray: A Plea for Prayer in Our Schools. The play happily smooths all of that out, ignoring their later history.
Mitchell’s lawyer (and now we revert to the characters’ names not their historical prototypes) is Irwin (Sam Aaron), a dedicated progressive working pro bono, a small-time, insecure figure hardly prepared to argue a controversial and in all likelihood unwinnable case before the Supremes that even the ACLU wouldn’t take. He is assertively Jewish, throwing Yiddish words around freely, even as he knows that Maggie does not understand the language—though Billy knows the most common words from his friendship with Jewish schoolmates. The actor’s flowing locks conflict with the image of a lawyer in the early 1960s.
In a supportive role to Maggie and her case is a successful Fuller Brush salesman named George (Bruce Nehlsen), who has heard about her and drops by to make her acquaintance. He is a rare character on the American stage: an actual, live, card-carrying member of the Communist Party at the height of the Cold War, portrayed quite sympathetically. He donates to her cause part of the commission on the brushes he sells, and Maggie, to her credit, does not reject the collaboration of a Communist. Maggie’s been widowed for seven years at this point, and George for five, so the glimmer of a possible romance is hinted. His short speech detailing how his father became a Communist, and subsequently himself, is quietly eloquent, though the author makes the common mistake of referring to the International Workers of the World rather than the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Other female characters—Teresa, a school board spokesperson, and a Messenger who calls on Maggie to try to convert her to Jesus—are played by Helen Siff.
The play raises critical issues concerning the parental drive to pursue a radical, and highly publicized legal course, sometimes at her son’s expense, as he is often isolated, kicked out of school and beaten up. He says he’s not bothered by her choices and supports her completely, but from a dramatic standpoint it might have been more interesting to build in more tension between mother and son—and thereby anticipate the eventual estrangement that actually occurred.
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The play also reminds us that the path forward also suffers defeats and retreats: The newly constituted “Trump Court,” including his three radical-right appointees Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett, ruled in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (2022) that teachers, staff and coaches now have the green light to lead public school students in prayer.
The main draw for this play is the story itself. For the purposes of the play, it almost doesn’t matter how much is drawn from the historical record. Yet the writer rarely uses his creative freedom to allow his characters to fully soar above the material. He constrains their roles to his utilitarian need to tell a predictable tale of success against deep adversity. Maggie suffers a health crisis in the second act. Was it brought on by the prodigious amount of alcohol she consumes? The playwright gives us no other reason why she, and Irwin and George—but always at her instigation—drink so much.
Manus changes scenes frequently—the living room, the school, the court—and there’s a blackout each time while the actors adjust the props accordingly. Less might have been more, as the constant interruptions clumsily slow down the action. Less literalism and projections might have been a better way to go. Instead of jazz interludes, which don’t set the time or mood especially well, a contemporary soundtrack of popular music of the period might have been a better choice. And, honestly, more than one actor had troubles with their lines. Judith Rose directed.
The premiere is staged by Write Act Repertory’s producing artistic director, John A Lant; Jonathan Harrison is the associate producer. Jonathan Harrison, technical director and stage manager, had some computer problems for the opening performance on Sun., Oct. 16th, but hopefully the kinks have been worked out. It’s a very intimate theatre, and we brave few in attendance rather enjoyed the community-theater, let’s-put-on-a-play spirit, knowing that despite all, it was an important story to share.
The Atheist Mother plays for five weekends at The Brick House Theatre through Nov. 13. Performances are Sat. at 8:00 pm, and Sun. at 2:00 pm, with a running time of 100 minutes with one intermission. The Brick House Theatre is located at 10950 Peach Grove St., N. Hollywood 91601 (off Vineland, just north of Camarillo). Tickets are available here. General Admission is $25, Seniors $20. It’s open seating. On-site cash sales only (no credit/debit cards accepted). Find on-street parking. This is a vaccinated workspace and guests are asked to remain masked at all times for the performance.