by Len Lear
Melissa McBain, an esteemed Chestnut Hill poet, playwright and daughter of a Baptist minister who also has a gay son, has written a play, “Altar Call,” that depicts a minister’s daughter trapped between the demands of her fundamentalist father and the needs of her gay son. Faith and family erupt at the altar. (McBain has lived in Chestnut Hill for five years.)
The drama will open Friday, Oct. 9, at the Broad Street Ministry, 315 S. Broad St. There will be four performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. and Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. Running time is 90 minutes.
“Altar Call” has had two successful productions in Illinois, where McBain had a college teaching career. Critics proclaimed the drama a “must see” and a “volatile mix of sexuality and religion.” Famed playwright Edward Albee simply stated, “I think you should see this play.” After the Illinois premiere, a mother of a lesbian revealed that her daughter had tried four times to commit suicide. “I wish I had seen this before all that blood,” she said.
A grieving mother contacted the playwright to say, “Your play helped me, not in the way you might imagine. I don’t have a gay son. I have a dead one. Your play has raised questions about the bible that I didn’t dare to ask. Now my grief is a little less heavy. So thank you.”
When asked by this reporter about her own gay son, McBain replied, “Since my play is fiction. I am not comfortable putting any attention on my sons other than telling people I have a gay son and a straight son. One is a doctor, and the other one is an attorney … I want avid theater goers, people of faith, and atheists to be totally engaged with the characters they encounter in ‘Altar Call’ … I have known many young people who have been alienated and rejected by their childhood churches and families. After 9/11, I realized that if I didn’t write this story, I would always regret it.”
McBain, a former Radnor Township teacher and Eastern University graduate, has returned to Philadelphia to be a full-time playwright after a college teaching career in Illinois. While her two sons were toddlers, she worked on her masters at Arizona State University and received that degree in l977. After moving to Greenville, PA, she taught at Thiel College during the ‘80s until starting work on her Ph.D. at Kent University, where she also taught theater classes and did some acting.
The day after she received her Ph.D., she moved to Illinois and taught theater and education classes at Augustana College. She also founded and produced the Quad City Playwrights Festival and hosted visiting artists such as Edward Albee, B.D. Wong and Anna Deavere Smith. When asked her age, McBain said, “I will quote one of my characters on this one. ‘I stopped telling people my age once it exceeded my bra size.’”
McBain also wrote a play called “Going Back Naked” that was performed at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival in 2011 and other venues. It was based on love letters written by her parents to each other during the Great Depression, when they were students at Eastern Baptist Seminary, located then in Rittenhouse Square.
“They took summer jobs apart, my mother selling Bibles in West Monroe, Louisiana, and my father helping on his family’s farm in Bottineau, North Dakota. After my mother died, I read the letters and felt compelled to tell her story of once being a child star, winning piano competitions in Center City that were sponsored by Juilliard and Steinway, and then becoming a minister’s wife and my mother. I found a recording of her music that she had given her children as stocking stuffers one year for Christmas. Stocking stuffers! I incorporated that music into the play, and each night when I told her story, I felt her talent and her sacrifice.”
McBain also wrote “Yard Sale,” which premiered at New Ground Theater in Davenport, Iowa, and recently was a finalist in a one-act play contest sponsored by the Ethical Humanist Society. “Yard Sale” depicts an aging woman on her last day of independence before she moves into a nursing home. As she takes inventory of items not yet sold, she becomes younger, and we discover that she was once a teacher of Shakespeare after she survived starving conditions as a child. Melissa read from it at the Ethical Humanist Society on Rittenhouse Square on Sunday, Aug. 16.
For “Altar Call,” McBain and friends recently completed a successful Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, raising the $7000 they were seeking to stage the play. Tickets for it are $20 for general admission and $15 for seniors and full-time students. Tickets may be obtained at 215-360-1831 or altarcall.brownpapertickets.com. If one Googles “altar call philly premiere,” an informative 4-minute video comes up that explains the background of the play and its Philly connections.