Keys of the Kingdom

By Penny Pennistonstage left theatre

Directed by Greg Werstler

Produced by Stage Left Theatre

in association with Theater Wit

At Theater Wit, Chicago

Humanism ultimately prevails as the keys to the kingdom

In the first gem of 2015, Penny Penniston has penned a terrific “must see” play that contains some interesting twists on Evangelical Christian beliefs and practices questioning the role of God acting through ministers and common folk. Penniston carefully avoids ridicule of fundamentalist Christian beliefs as we meet the charismatic evangelical mega church pastor, Ed (the commandingly sincere Don Bender). She lets his “true believer in God working via him” persona speak for itself. We see Ed absolutely and sincerely “believes” (and practices) what he preaches.

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Ed’s fanatically loyal assistant, Arthur (Brian Plocharczyk, doing his finest work to date), obeys orders and attacks paperwork as he lives and guards against sin. He is a guilt-ridden believer who was saved and reformed by Ed after youthful recklessness and criminality that put a young girl in a lifelong coma. Arthur also has advanced kidney disease.

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When Ed asks Arthur to interview an atheist lesbian NYC painter for a commission to paint a mural on the church’s ceiling, Arthur is astounded. Irene (Kate Black-Spence) and her wife Paige (McKenzie Chinn) quickly erupt in confrontation as lesbian feminist atheism meets evangelical Christianity. Arthur is more surprised when Ed announces Irene was chosen by God (through him) to paint the mural. Add Arthur’s poor medical condition that he carefully hides from Joann (Kathrynne Wolf) his wife’s news that she, in middle age, is pregnant, and the plot is primed.

As Irene wrestles for an idea as what to paint since Ed tells her that God will inspire her,  Arthur suggest she paint Peter’s thrice denial of Jesus.  As she delves into the New Testament for details of Peter’s Denial, she experiences a personal epiphany in the form of a vision of bright lights with voices from angels (?).

Act two finds Irene euphoric as to her ‘mission’ to paint the mural. Is she suffering from trauma or religious ecstasy or is her mind being powered by her religious surrounds? In her explanation of her “vision,” she speaks of angels but not God, yet Ed and Arthur believe that God has spoken to her. When she reveals that Arthur needs a kidney transplant, Ed and Irene rally to help him. Arthur, filled with guilt from his past actions, doesn’t feel worthy of such attention.

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Without giving away much more, let me say that Irene’s monologue about the real meaning of Peter’s Denial  suggests the value and goodness of one man helping another as the basis of human interaction dictates that she give a kidney to Arthur and that Arthur needs to rid himself of guilt and move on.

The sheer cleverness of Penniston’s play lies in her intertwining of fundamentalist beliefs with the humanism of an atheist with the two opposites not contradicting each other. We see Ed praying and nodding his approval as Irene touts her humanistic explanation of her epiphany and the lesson of Peter’s Denial from the New Testament. All are changed as the dynamics of personal belief (defined as “without proof but as likelihood of truth”) leads to personal faith (defined here as trust and confidence to be true) are dramatized in a plausible manner.  We witness Arthur, after receiving Irene’s kidney, as a more content and wise person who now understands Joann’s reluctance to want an other child. 

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Keys of the Kingdom is a thought-provoking parable that sets up a possibly explosive religious conflict but cleverly trumps all  zealotry with basic humanity. The performances are first rate, especially by Brian Plocharczyk and Kate Black-Spence with Don Bender as the charismatic preacher. Keys of the Kingdom presents evangelical extremism honestly yet blends humanism into the equation. As theatre, Keys to the Kingdom is engaging, beautifully written, and nicely staged by director Greg Werstler. It is a wonderful new work and the first “must see”show of 2015. Stage Left Theatre continues their fine work. Don’t miss this gem!

Highly Recommended

Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed:  January 16, 2105

Jeff Recommended

For more info  checkout the Key of the Kingdom page at

At Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago, IL, call 773-975-8150,, tickets $18 – $24, Thursdays thru Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm, running time is 2 hours with intermission, through February 15, 2015