The Glory Man at Lamb's Players Theatre

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau says doing good can have selfish motives. Goodness, he writes, “must not be a partial and transitory act, but a constant superfluity, which costs him nothing and of which he is unconscious.” Clarence Jordan (1912–1969) took Thoreau’s injunction — be good, and good will follow — to ­heart.

You might recall his nephew — Hamilton Jordan was Jimmy Carter’s chief of staff — but not Clarence. He had a degree in agriculture and a Ph.D. in the Greek New Testament from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Like Martin Luther, he wanted to return Christianity to its basics. For example: “There just isn’t any word in our vocabulary which adequately translates the Greek word for ‘crucifixion.’ Our crosses are so shined, so polished, so respectable that to be impaled on one…would seem a blessed ­experience.”

In the late 1960s, Jordan wrote The Cotton Patch Gospel, a Southern, colloquial translation of the Greek New Testament in which Paul’s letter to the Ephesians becomes “The Letter to Christians in Birmingham,” and he substitutes the word “lynching” for ­crucifixion.

In 1942, he and wife Florence bought 440 acres in Americus, Georgia. They founded Koinonia (“Fellowship”) Farm, a spare, racially integrated Christian collective in the middle of Macon County. When word spread that blacks and whites lived side by side, even ate meals together, locals boycotted the farm. Jordan was also a student of Gandhi, in particular his belief in satyagraha: the “soul force” of passive resistance. On at least 23 occasions the KKK attacked Koinonia — vandalism, gunfire, bombings — and put Jordan’s credo of nonviolence to the ­test.

Instead of reaching for a gun, Jordan wrote: “If it costs us our lives…to redeem our brothers and sisters in the flesh, so let it be…. To move away would be to deny the redemptive process of ­God.”

In 1965, when only a handful of members remained, Millard and Linda Fuller visited the farm. They became so inspired they created “partnership housing” with Jordan: quality homes, with a no-interest mortgage, for low-income families. In 1976 Koinonia Partners became Habitat for Humanity. Jordan never saw the first house constructed. He died of a heart attack in ­1969.

Jordan’s decades-long turn-the-other-cheek battle is a great idea for a play. Dennis Hassell’s Glory Man, world premiering at Lamb’s, sketches in the life but tries to account for every event from 1942 to 1970 and rarely holds still. In the process, Jordan and the plight of Koinonia Farm beam on and off. The script only skims the surface of a deep ­reservoir.

Hassell has an annoying habit of jumping from seriousness to comedy, often in seconds (just about every time the two children enter, for example, they defuse a dramatic moment). In effect, he has laced a soft vein of comedy through real hardship and woe. The same holds for his characterization of Jordan. Possibly backing away from hagiography, Hassell often makes him clownish — too clownish, as if he were just shallow (“Clarence had the passion of a prophet and the sense of a mule”). But the guy was tough as nails. The comic veneer dilutes his courage and drive. Revisions could begin by eliminating the play’s ever-present smile and giving Jordan, and the script, a firmer ­spine.

But while The Glory Man needs work, the Lamb’s production’s a treat. On Mike Buckley’s minimalist set — unpainted wooden stairs and platform, like an unfinished house — director Robert Smyth turns his cast into a chorus. Rural sounds, from cowbells to gunfire, emerge from actors seated in the background. Canes and boot-heels tap rhythms; spirituals sprout (including “Love Lifted Me”). The Glory Man, it turns out, lies somewhere between a “play with music” and a full musical. The songs, well chosen and directed by Deborah Gilmour Smyth (including her lyrical “Follow, Follow”), create ongoing, and affecting, aural ­scenery.

Rick D. Meads heads a strong ensemble as Jordan. He does well what the script gives him, always an engaging presence, but should have more than one or two beats to register painfully conflicting emotions. Antonio “T.J.” Johnson’s Old Rupe narrates the story with humor and wisdom. Mike Sears smartly tones down Carrick, which makes the bigoted thug even viler. As Jordan’s wife Florence and Reverend Modret, Deborah Gilmour Smyth and Robert Smyth play figures torn between life-saving expedience and visionary dreams (“I follow Jesus,” says the Reverend, “up to a point”). Keith Jefferson makes Gus Rawley the story’s doubting Thomas and rocks the rafters when he ­sings.

Jeanne Reith has designed 18th Century and Victorian costume extravaganzas. Here she works with a much narrower palette — humble denims and cotton prints — with just as much ­success. ■

The Glory Man by Dennis Hassell
Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Avenue, Coronado
Directed by Robert Smyth; cast: Antonio “T.J.” Johnson, Bryan Barbarin, Keith Jefferson, Deborah Gilmour Smyth, Rick D. Meads, Adrian Blount, Avery Solsbak, Alexis Rae Tenny, Jesse Abeel, Jason Heil, Caitie Grady, Cynthia Gerber, Doug Waldo, Kerry Meads, Mike Sears, Cashae Monya, Matthew Meads; scenic design, Mike Buckley; costumes, Jeanne Reith; lighting, Nate Parde; sound, Deborah Gilmour Smyth, George Wheeler; choreographer, Colleen Kollar Smith
Playing through November 14; Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-437-0600.

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