The final inspiration for Curtis Treat's script didn't come until late in the process, but when it did, it wrapped everything together perfectly.
Mark 9:24. It's a Scripture that has spoken to and stayed with Treat ever since, and it has a pivotal part in his newest play, "God in the Machine."
Directed by Curtis and Candy Treat with Debbie Starr as assistant director, "God in the Machine" — a story of grief, uncertainty and, ultimately, hope — opens at 7:30 p.m. today at Stained Glass Theatre.
The original screenplay by Curtis Treat takes place in a fallout shelter in Oklahoma during a series of tornadoes. An eclectic group gathers to take cover, and while they're confined within the shelter, they can't help but start to confide in one another. Each character brings their experiences with God to the table, and when James, a professor in his 40s, dismisses a call for prayer with uncertainty that it won't do any good anyway, the group falls into conversation.
Those who go to watch the play may sense a general theme: Life isn't easy.
"Life's not for sissies," one character says, "so saddle up."
With a cast of only 10, finding the right people to fill the roles was Treat's first challenge. Casting is generally the hardest part of putting a show together, he said.
But "we've got a great cast," he said, and a mixture of newcomers and seasoned performers create the dynamic needed to propel the script forward.
Since June, the cast has poured their hearts and souls into connecting with their characters. Given the topic, it's been an emotional ride for many of the cast. For Treat, who takes on the role of James, it's likely the most emotional part he's ever played on stage — or at least in a long time, he said.
"It's just physically and emotionally draining to play James. So this has been different," he said.
Knowing Treat has written more than two dozen produced one-acts or plays and roughly 200 short skits puts things into perspective. And with "God in the Machine" being his most recent play, it's clear this one is special.
The thought-provoking conversations of the play have ministered to the cast itself. At Stained Glass, leaders feel it's important to minister to their audiences, but much of the ministry they do first reaches the cast and crew.
"One of the ladies (in the play) said, 'Hey, you know, this just came around at the right time,' because she's gone through some struggles in her life recently, and this is helping her," Treat said.
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The topics also resonate beyond the walls of the small theater.
Treat said he sees parallels between the play and the ongoing world pandemic and the uncertainty that comes with it. It almost feels like an accidental analogy — accidental because the play is inspired by a series of events from 2019.
"This is a very confusing time. And obviously, when I wrote this play, I had no idea what 2020 was going to be about. I went through a lot of grief last year," he said. "And so part of that shows in this play. It's dealing with grief."
Within a month last year, Treat lost his closest uncle, his father and his mother. It was a tough journey, he said, and he used his writing as a creative coping method.
One question that comes up within the screenplay is: If God is there, why do bad things happen?
"Even that topic with Christians is kind of " he trailed off before he could finish. "There are some Christians that understand questioning God, and there's other Christians (who say), 'Well, we should never question God.'"
"God in the Machine," Treat said, was written for both of those audiences — those who have questioned God and those who, if they're open to it, can come to understand why some people might.
He wraps up the accidental analogy to be a "God thing."
"'OK, this is why you told this story at this time,'" Treat said. "Hopefully God can use it and people can get some hope, because there are so many people out there right now that just don't see any hope in anything."
If there's anything Treat wants audiences to take away from "God in the Machine," it's that God is there.
"There are times and there are storms in our life that it's hard to see, but he is there," he said. "We don't always see him. We don't always understand the things that are going on. We don't understand why things happen. But he is there."
And as one character adds, "If we're questioning God, at least we're talking to him."
"God in the Machine" will open at 7:30 p.m. today at Stained Glass Theatre, 830 E. High St. The show runs through Sept. 19, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays and at 2 p.m. Saturdays.
Tickets are $7 for tonight's opening night and $10 for remaining shows. Reservations can be made online at sgtmidmo.org.