Sunday, September 19, 2010

THEATER: The Revival

It takes a lot to get Pastor Eli (Trent Dawson) worked up; for years he’s kept his emotions in check, has maintained his marriage with June (Aidan Sullivan), and has dealt with the narrow minds—and dwindling numbers—of his Arkansas congregation, which doesn’t care much for his Ivy League-educated sermons. (“To rationally choose the irrational—to really think about it, convert, and then keep thinking about it.”) But when his political aide Trevor (Raymond McAnally) keeps insisting that he throw a revival in order to impress some visiting scouts for a megachurch network, he finally snaps, to which Trevor replies: “This is great! Ya’ just spoke with passion.” Eli points out that Trevor still hasn’t heard him, at which point Trevor hits the nail on the head: “Don’t matter what ya’ said—ya’ meant it—ya’ wuz mad.”

Trevor’s observation is a sad but true fact of modern oration, especially in politics, but that’s what makes Samuel Brett Williams’s The Revival such a miracle. The dialogue, actions, and characters of his play are not only filled with passion, but they are convincing enough to keep the audience listening, and more than that—it is filled with things worth hearing and seeing. The plot itself isn’t all that new—Eli gets himself into some trouble after falling for Daniel (David Darrow), a rough, cow-pummeling runaway in need of shelter—but the execution is divine, particularly when it comes to the impeccable cast. Authenticity runs throughout the entire Project Y Theatre production, from the roughly hewn crosses and wooden beams hanging above Kevin Judge’s split-scene set to director Michole Biancosino’s choice to add pre- and post-show hymns (sung by a live chorus) and to plant worshippers in the audience.

The intensity ratchets upward throughout The Revival—particularly in a set of concurrent scenes that juxtapose violence with a genealogical prayer, and the writing continues to outdo itself, shifting from irrational explanations of rational actions to rational explanations of irrational actions. The plot surprises, excites, and ultimately delights; it’s more than just a series of passions. In fact, Williams has provided so much history for these characters that his actors are able to show multiple things at once. There’s a moment where June confesses that she’s always suspected Eli’s inclinations—not because she thought ill of him, but because she thought so little of herself. It’s heartbreaking, but when Sullivan delivers the speech, we respect, detest, and pity her.

Watch also the way that Dawson’s Eli prays: as an intellectual, he always leaves an extra inch of thought between his words, as if he’s trying to be utterly accurate. Taking the other approach, McAnally delivers Trevor’s methodical speeches almost spontaneously; when he talks, it’s as if a volcano of words has erupted within him—flashes of anger, muted seconds later by rational albeit molten thoughts. Most impressive of all is Darrow’s performance as Daniel: he earns the teen’s irrational and rebellious anger, and has the range to show not just the necessarily hardened youth, but the sensitive heart that wants to beat underneath. (He reads Proust, not because he understands it, but because he’s been told that only smart people read Proust.) He makes bold choices on stage, and shoots the audience electric looks in which a million things are meant and in which anything might happen: “Ya’ wanna call the cops—fine—fuck you. People wanna come after me ‘cuz we wuz happy—fine—FUCK THEM. I’ll die like your Jesus, and then I’ll rise again, and ya’ know what—I’LL STILL BE A FAGGOT!”

The Revival does enough to make you want to spring to your feet—and at the same time, floors you. The result is the sort of play that makes you feel like you’re floating, and a highly recommended piece of theater.

No comments: