By MARK BLANKENSHIP
It's an accident of timing, but it’s still compelling: Right now, two Off-Broadway plays are confronting the most scandalous modern intersections of religion and sexuality, and they're doing it with unusual aggression. Audiences expecting gentle remorse or tasteful shame will instead see vengeance, anger, and a raging fire.
That invites some tantalizing questions: When religious leaders betray us, what should we do? When the faithful get violent, how should we respond? And how do we understand faith in the aftermath of these conflicts?
In Owen O'Neill's Absolution now in previews at 59E59, we meet a man who believes he's been divinely called to destroy pedophile priests in the Catholic Church. Throughout this solo show, in which O'Neill plays the nameless killer, we not only hear graphic descriptions of crimes and punishments, but also justifications for each act of vengeance.
Most fictional stories about child abuse in the church are full of ambiguity (consider Doubt), so the unwavering certainty in Absolution is especially striking. "There's a lot of shows and films about victims and remorse," says O'Neill, an Irishman. "I didn't want [the character] to apologize for his behavior. I wanted him to say, 'I did this, now you have to make up your mind about it.'"
There's a similar intensity in Samuel Brett Williams' The Revival, now in previews at Theatre Row. Worried he's going to lose his followers to a nearby megachurch, an Arkansas pastor makes waves by promising to "cure" a mysterious stranger of his homosexuality. The ploy gets attention, but it also forces the pastor to confront his own desires. Eventually, the public world of righteous heterosexuality collides with the private world of hidden truth, and the painful consequences make an undeniable statement.
Like O'Neill, however, Williams hopes his play engages moral issues instead of actually delivering a moral. "I don't want there to be a message, so much as I'm trying to portray questions, and I don't have answers for them," he says.
So what makes these questions pertinent? For one thing, issues like sexual abuse and the conversion of gay men and women have become a recurring part of our cultural conversation. O'Neill was inspired to write his play after he saw a documentary about abuse survivors and heard one interviewee say he wished he'd killed the priest who hurt him. Williams, meanwhile, is an Arkansas native who was raised Methodist and went to a Southern Baptist college. "I've always been surrounded by a fascinating religious culture," he says. "I've had friends bless their marijuana. The way we say that the things we want are okay, but other things aren't okay, it's fascinating. I wanted to write about it."
Beyond the realm of current events, there's also something vital about tackling religion in a theatre. "To me, the theatre is church," says Williams. "You sit down, you get a program, you get a message to think about, and sometimes, someone sings."
How fitting, then, to go to a secular church to consider how actual churches impact our lives.
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
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Photo credit: Owen O’Neill in “Absolution.” Photo by Ari Mintz.