Evolution, religion, and Elvis Presley. Those are the subjects at the core of “Bless Your Heart,” an original play by Ojai Art Center Theater artistic director Richard Camp, making its world debut at the theater on September 6. In an interview with the News-Press, the playwright expressed great excitement for the production’s opening not only because he wrote it, but because holding original productions is a rarity for the Ojai Art Center Theater.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Mr. Camp said.
Based on his own upbringing in a southern evangelical family, “Bless Your Heart” tells the story of an evolutionary biologist named Thomas, who upon returning home tries to prevent his 17-year-old brother John David from marrying Charlene, preacher’s daughter. Like Mr. Camp, who the character is based on, Thomas is the first member of his family to graduate from not only college, but high school. Fearing that his brother is ruining his life by marrying Charlene instead of getting educated and breaking free of their poor, religious upbringing, Thomas comes into conflict with his mother Martha, who worries about her younger son’s eternal fate should he follow in Thomas’ footsteps.
In a press release, Mr. Camp referred to “Bless Your Heart” as a “dramedy.”
He said, “It’s a comedy, and a drama shifting between both poles only as a family and all its baggage can produce. Everyone can relate to family dinners where conversations drift into subject matter that can set someone off, bless their hearts.”
In addition to Thomas and his immediate family, the play’s cast of characters also includes the “very colorful” Aunt Lucille, who like one of Mr. Camp’s own aunts has been married 11 times. She also makes frequent trips to Graceland to satisfy what the writer called a “fetish” for singer Elvis Presley.
One of the central messages “Bless Your Heart” imparts is the importance of education, which Mr. Camp said “changes the world.” He added that the exchange of dialogue between those who do and don’t believe in god is crucial for what’s going on in the world in 2019, as he sees an increase in animosity between those who are evangelical Christians and those who aren’t.
“If we sit down and listen to each other we will realize that we are part of the same family,” he said.
Personally, Mr. Camp is an agnostic who believes that the existence of god cannot be proven or disproven, but tends to lean toward a more scientific worldview. However, to have a creative voice on the production with a perspective diametric to his, Mr. Camp decided to choose a believing Christian as director and recruited Tom Eubanks, a frequent director of Ojai Art Center Theater productions.
“With my point of view as the writer and his point of view as the director, it bolsters what I’m trying to do in the play,” he said.
Recalling his first meeting with Mr. Eubanks to discuss the production, Mr. Camp said that the director asked who the story’s hero was. Mr. Camp retorted that “Bless Your Heart” has two protagonists, Thomas and Martha, both presenting their sides in the play’s overarching thematic conflict the best they can.
Mr. Camp jokingly added, “My side wins.”
“Bless Your Heart” will run for four weekends between September 6 and 29. Friday and Saturday performances start at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday matinees start at 2 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online at ojaiact.org or by calling (805) 640-8797.