Every now and then, an “issue” play comes along that’s so
well-written, so tightly directed and so well-cast that the issues can’t elbow
their way to center stage. And Samuel Brett Williams’ The Revival, the rare play to take a clear-eyed look at
Christianity without resorting to satire, manages to balance clarity of vision
with crackling good theater.
Golden boy pastor Eli (Trent Dawson, as good on stage as he
was on As The World Turns) has inherited
from his father a congregation of fire-and-brimstone seeking Christians. His
sermons, cerebral and well reasoned, can’t ignite the latent spark of crazed
faith that ranting can. “I know it’s in vogue for preachers to have this amazing testimony
about how they were snorting coke off of a hooker’s butt in a Holiday Inn
Express one night, and God took them right then and there,” he observes drily
in a sermon. But all his congregants want is a fiery sermon every Sunday
to fan the flames of blind devotion.
But Eli is, paradoxically for a preacher, a pragmatist.
Forced with the threat of being voted out by the church’s board (despite the
church having been built by his father), Eli allows himself to be bullied by
the church’s accountant Trevor (Raymond McAnally) into applying to join the
Southern Baptist Board of Churches as the first step to becoming a mega church.
Eli’s wife June (a heartbreaking Aidan Sullivan), however, is a no-frills
Christian. She’s furious about the possibility of becoming a mega church, and
that Eli complains about something missing from his life. God will fill in
what’s missing after death, she says firmly. But Eli still yearns for something
That something else turns out to be 18-year-old drifter
Daniel (David Darrow), who punches a cow to death but goes to libraries every
day to read Proust, because he was once told that only the smartest people read
him. His encounter with Eli sets into motion a chain of events both gut wrenching
and unavoidable, as all four characters fight to preserve what happiness
they’ve managed to eek out.
Impossible to single out one of the actors for praise over
the rest, this is one of the best casts assembled for an Off-Off-Broadway show
in a long time, perfectly directed by Michole Biancosino. Dawson nails the
charisma of a Southern preacher while still nervously conveying his interior
double life that soon spills over into real life. McAnally’s Trevor is
immediately recognizable to anyone who grew up as a Southern Baptist, a good
ol’ boy who thinks God personally takes an interest in his life.
As the catalyst for everything that happens, Darrow
skillfully avoids any and all clichés that might cling to Daniel. Neither a
stereotypical twink nor a Hee-Haw hick
who happens to like men, Daniel is just a lonely teenager who doesn’t want to
leave the only place he’s ever felt safe. But June won’t allow him to wreck the
only place she’s ever felt safe, either.
Sullivan is never better than when June sheds her genteel
Southern nature to fight for her home. She delivers a late-in-the-show
monologue about snow owls so beautifully that it isn’t until the show ends that
one realizes how out-of-place the speech was. What does it matter, though, when
Sullivan brings audiences to tears with it, then turns around and spits venom?
That’s the thing about the most vocal Christians: Too often, they’re venomous
snakes masquerading as snow owls. And Samuel Brett Williams clearly knows it. The
Revival might not convert many down South,
but it’s certain to win over fans of good theater.
>The Revival. Through Sept. 25, Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St. (betw. 9th
& 10th Aves.), 212-239-6200; $18.