It may be asking too much of one actor to convey the enormous impact of the accomplishments of John Wesley, the founder of what is now known as the United Methodist Church. Using Wesley's writings as his source material, playwright Brad L. Smith, in 90 minutes, gives us reminiscences of his family, childhood failures, and strong spiritual faith in Jesus Christ as the redeemer of souls.
Roger Nelson has performed Wesley for more than 1,200 audiences in 31 countries. Usually presented in churches and universities, this production is a rare commercial engagement. Herein lies the problem. Methodist congregations and theological students can fill in the blanks, where perhaps more secular audiences require Wesley's life placed in context with the difficult times in 18th century England, noted for its lack of humane help. We are given a portrait of an important religious figure in miniature, when we need a larger canvas.
Wesley enters his well-appointed study speaking offstage to his lazy assistant, Michael. Should the more knowledgeable know who Michael is? If not, the whimsy is lost on us. Nelson fusses at length with the props--a bell, Bible, and candle--rearranges things in his saddlebag, finally looks up, and begins talking directly to the audience. It's not a positive sign that my goodwill was taxed before the performance began.
Oxford-educated Wesley was a field preacher, banned from speaking in churches (even though his father and grandfather were ministers). He barely survived a home fire, his mother believing he had a calling from God. Smith recounts Wesley's self-described failure teaching Indians in the Georgia colony. We hear testimony of his belief that it isn't enough to just do good deeds--one must have a deep faith in Jesus Christ.
Wesley was a religious reformer who believed in saving as many souls as he could, and Nelson embodies his noblest achievements, but this production is fragmented. I left with more questions than revelations. If that was the mission, it was accomplished.