nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 9, 2006
Edmund De Santis's new play, Ascension, is an entertaining and suspenseful cat-and-mouse thriller. Possibly the neatest thing about it is that of its three characters, it's never clear who is the cat and who are the mice.
Ascension unfolds in the office of Father Calvin Porter, a successful Catholic priest who is about to be promoted to bishop. Or is he? His guest, as the play begins, is Agnes Sabatino, a seemingly mousy woman whose habit of sometimes referring to herself in the third person is a little creepy; she has come here ostensibly to talk to Father Cal about catering an upcoming social event at the church. But it's not long before she makes plain the true purpose of this meeting. "You molested my son eight years ago," she coldly informs the priest—and then she proceeds to outline a plan to extort $100,000 from him in exchange for her silence.
Father Cal of course protests his innocence. But he's clearly disturbed by this turn of events, and is even more so when, a few hours later, Agnes's son Lorenzo turns up in his office. Lorenzo, who was once a "star" altar boy at the church, is now all grown up—handsome, devilishly seductive, and apparently very determined to entice the priest into breaking one of his vows tonight. Has this happened before?
Ascension never straightforwardly answers this or any other question: all the characters are plainly duplicitous manipulators, but the exact nature of what each has or has not actually done is tantalizingly left for us to guess or decide. My companion and I each arrived at entirely different conclusions about what's actually "true" in the play, which seems to me to be the mark of a masterful drama of this genre.
But De Santis has more on his mind here than just teasing his audience with these dueling versions of that elusive entity known as "truth." Ascension also contains plenty of fodder for deeper exploration. What are the costs of repressing one's true nature? And what are the consequences when the people we most trust to deal with us honestly—parents, children, priests—are seen to have betrayed us?
Ascension has been given a first-class production, helmed very effectively by director Marc Geller and featuring excellent design by Aaron Mastin (sets), Dennis Ballard (costumes), and Frank DenDanto III (lighting). All three actors turn in splendid performances. Lucy McMichael is terrific as the scarily unhinged Agnes, and Brandon Ruckdashel is sexy and dangerous as the young man Lorenzo. Stephen Hope offers a shrewd, multi-layered portrayal of Father Cal, who may be a (mostly) innocent victim of a warped family's machinations, or may be the most treacherous one on stage.
Ascension is the best kind of theatre: It keeps us riveted at the edge of our seats, waiting to see how it will play out. And it sets up lots of provocative conversation for after the curtain comes down.