nytheatre.com review by Judith Jarosz
September 10, 2010
This new play by Samuel Brett Williams receives its world premiere courtesy of Project Y Theater. It centers on Eli, the son of a Southern Baptist preacher who returns from Harvard to his Arkansas hometown to rebuild his father's congregation. Eli lacks the showmanship that other Southern evangelical preachers display, and has trouble "selling" to his congregation. Add to this a healthy dose of denial of sexual preference, and you have a solid set up for trouble. The play's main conflict revolves around Eli's attempt to "cure" a young man of his homosexuality, which solves his immediate problem of competing with the mega-Churches, but sets off an unforeseen chain reaction.
The production has a lot going for it, not the least of which is a very talented cast. Trent Dawson plays Preacher Eli with a nicely understated balance of passion and anal retentiveness that gives us a real understanding of the sincerity of his conflicts. David Darrow is wonderful as Daniel, the young gay drifter who falls hard for Eli. Raymond McAnally brings natural comedic buoyancy to church member and good ol' boy Trevor, who tries to educate Eli on just what makes a church "business" work. And Aidan Sullivan is right on target as Eli's loyal, adoring wife June, who will fight to keep the only relationship in her life that she feels has elevated her above the ordinary. Williams has a real knack for natural realistic dialogue infused with humor, which helps us care about these characters. The cast is completed by a church choir and congregation played by Kara Davidson, Vienna Hall, Emily Seale Jones, Claudia de Latour, Catherine Lidstone, Jenn Machover, Jerry Marchese, Corey Andrew Markowitz, Rita Miklusyte, Gillian Riley, Saffron Wayman, and Joshua Warr.
I love the clever, rustic, bold, one-unit set by designer Kevin Judge, with its thick wood beams, hanging cross, and working choir loft creating a perfect atmosphere for a country church. Stage right suggests a home kitchen space while stage left represents the inside of a small cabin in the woods, leaving the center stage area for multiple uses including the pulpit of the sanctuary. The lighting design by Ben Hagen does a nice job of creating definition and space, with an outstanding choice of using the whole theatre at the conclusion. Sound design by Amit Prakash includes hymns that set the atmosphere well, and the simple costumes by Emily Pepper, are well suited to the piece.
Director Michole Biancosino, who is also the artistic director of the company, presents a tight production. There are smooth transitions, and blocking that makes good use of the limited performance space and envelops the audience. Unfortunately, there is a problem at the end. I won't spoil it by telling you what happens, and I do like that it goes in a direction that is unexpected, but after being introduced to these characters and getting to understand why they are who they are, I simply didn't believe the motivations for their actions at the end. The show runs a swift 75 minutes with no intermission, but perhaps adding to the running time by fleshing out some of the scenes would help us to see just how on the edge these people really are. Although there are some terrific creative technical choices made in the final scenes, they are so engrossing that the focus is entirely thrown off of Eli on the stage for his final tableau. This needs to be rectified as I believe a good portion of the audience—myself included—missed it entirely! Which, given all of the good work put into this production, is really frustrating.