It’s not uncommon for personal tragedy to shake one’s belief in a higher power, and even the most religiously devout individuals can experience a crisis of faith. That’s the premise behind Judy Simpson Cook’s Benedictions, in which suburban Presbyterian church minister Jesse Bradshaw Warren loses her two teenage sons in a car accident, and her convictions go with them.
Cat Rutledge, who plays Warren Davidson Community Players’ upcoming production, explains how her characters’ religious beliefs are a strong source of comfort and guidance at the beginning of the play, which runs from Feb. 21-March 10 at the Armour Street Theatre in Davidson.
“She’s very faithful and very strong in her beliefs,” Rutledge says. “She’s pretty dogmatic in her views. She’s very hardline, to a certain degree.”
Jesse first begins to doubt the tenets of her doctrine while counseling David Mack, a young gay churchgoer who struggles with the biblical condemnations of homosexuality and the rejection he feels from other members of the congregation. The sudden, devastating death of her sons exacerbates that internal conflict.
“That basically shatters Jesse’s faith and makes her question why,” Rutledge says. “She doesn’t really say, ‘Why would God do this?’ but ‘Where is God in all of this?’ … It puts a wedge in her relationship with pretty much everyone, most importantly her husband.”
Jesse and her husband ultimately separate, and she takes a sabbatical from preaching. It’s a difficult journey that’s filled with personal turmoil, but it’s one that will resonate with many audience members, says director Sylvia Schnople.
“Any mother will be able to relate to the love for her children and the grief she feels for both of her children,” Schnople says. “And I think that people will also understand the struggle she is having with her faith and the struggle she has with her husband, because, you know, you’ve got to blame somebody. I think when you have grief of any type, you have to find someone to blame when really there’s no one to blame … This is either something people will have experienced or known someone who has experienced it.”
“Anybody who’s experienced any loss whatsoever will understand how people grieve differently, and that’s the thing you see between the husband and the wife,” Rutledge adds. “It’s very different approaches to grieving.”
David Mack and Agnes Day Richardson, the church’s education director, support Jesse as she tries to put the pieces of her life back together, and their friendship ultimately helps her return to the pulpit.
For Rutledge, Benedictions demonstrates that isolation isn’t the answer to coping with life’s hardships.
“There’s different pathways in life, but isolating yourself is not a good way [to move forward], because that’s what Jesse kind of does,” she says. “She’s in her own personal hell, and until she gets beyond that, she can’t move forward. And to get moving beyond that is with the help of other people.”
Although Jesse is able to continue her work as a minister, part of her evolution is to recognize and accept that she doesn’t have all the answers.
“It’s interesting, because there’s such a journey for her, but there’s no clear-cut resolution in the end,” Rutledge says. “But there’s still that little bit of hope out there and she believes, tentatively, and it’s difficult, and sometimes she’s blanketed by overwhelming doubt. But she continues to do it. There’s a conscious decision. She takes a sabbatical, but she makes the choice to come back, because she can’t bear the thought that, ‘So, what else is there?’ There has to be something out there. She doesn’t understand it all. It’s not so black and white anymore.”