Directed by Marti Lyons
Produced by The Gift Theatre, Chicago
A Family Loses Faith in God and Their Brother
This year, The Gift Theatre is dedicating itself to the admirable, but risky enterprise of producing new works. The current offering, Body + Blood, was written by ensemble member Bill Nedved, who artistic director Michael Thornton praised for his honesty and simplicity. Body + Blood is indeed both those things, and under the direction of Marti Lyons, who recently directed Thornton in Title and Deed at Lookinglass, captures its protagonist’s feelings of anxious ennui. However, the play suffers from that protagonist’s lack of sympathetic qualities, and a supporting cast of characters who are rather slow on the uptake.
Dan (Nicholas Harazin) has been in a relationship with Leah (Cyd Blakewell) for three and a half years, and has a big announcement to make to her tonight, right before his family arrives for dinner. After a heart-to-heart they had last winter about how they would raise their children, his long-standing psychological unease from lack of structure in his life, and a rekindled sense of spirituality resulting from that conversation, Dan has decided to become a Roman Catholic priest. Leah feels rather ill-used by this, and notices that he waited to tell her this until after they had sex and right before his sister and brother-in-law arrived. They’re on her side, though. Monica (Lynda Newton) loves her brother dearly, and is basically resigned to his perpetual immaturity (he’s in his mid-thirties), but as a faithful Roman Catholic, she cannot allow him to make the priesthood his latest half-hearted dabbling. Her husband, Mick (Stephen Spencer), is more patient with Dan and has supported Dan in the past through attempts at normalcy he later abandoned, but basically agrees with Monica.
The problem is that Dan often flits from job to job, and his story about knowing he was called to the Lord when an acorn fell on his head is not very convincing. He has a priest mentoring him, Father Alex (Gabriel Franken), who has been very devoted to him, but even Father Alex is disgusted to learn that Dan lied to him about having broken up with Leah months ago, and called him in for reinforcement now without explaining the situation. Monica then brings up another problem: she’s pretty sure her eight-year-old son is gay, or will be, and wants to know if Father Alex will offer an accepting church for his confirmation. Father Alex says his parish welcomes everybody, but takes its orders from the Vatican. Monica winds up unsure if she even wants to continue being a Catholic, while Mick continues to offer his house to Dan, since he obviously can’t live with Leah anymore. At least we know Dan’s faith is as sincere as he’s capable of being in anything; he prays right before intermission, when nobody else is watching.
Nicholas Harazin’s performance is believable, but perhaps too much so. Monica is completely correct in her assessment of Dan: he’s a fool, likely always will be, and his dependence on others wouldn’t be so bad if he were consistently affectionate, but he isn’t. Dan’s self-awareness is a major reason for his self-loathing. He quickly admits to Leah that he’s been distant and dismissive, and when we see him right before his preliminary interview with the bishop, it looks like he’s sincerely trying to change, but hasn’t made it, yet. It’s really sad that instead of real counseling, he bonded with the conflicted Father Alex, who has his own secret. You’ll never guess what that is. Blakewell gets plenty of chances to demonstrate self-reproach, anger, and exasperation as Leah, the girlfriend Dan strung along, and is still in love with him despite, or maybe because of, his neediness. Her character, an irreligious Jew, is surprised to discover that she prefers a partner who believes in God, and has to ask herself whether she pushed impressionable Dan into his latest obsession, or ever really understood him.
Monica and Dan suffer from being given a conflict that is common, and not handled with any special insight in their case. Monica is really surprised to discover that the Roman Catholic Church is anti-gay, and she is in crises now that it affects her personally. Lynda Newton plays her as brassy, sharp, and empathetic, so it’s strange she is only just now learning this. Mick has a strange relationship with the Church that is only revealed in his last scene, but his dedication to it is much stronger, so that makes problems for Monica. Spencer’s portrayal is firm, and his character clearly well-meaning. But since they’re not the focus of the story, their wrestling with their religion is only important in so far as how it relates to their support for Dan, who we still have no reason to take seriously.
A recent atheist and a believer trying to negotiate how to raise children could be interesting subject matter, as could a relationship in which one person abruptly changes their life in a way to exclude the other. But we hardly see the former, and the latter would be hard to make longer than a single scene. Whatever issue it is Dan has that keeps causing him to self-sabotage could also fuel a drama, were it not always in the background of his current behavior. It may be I was unsatisfied with Body + Blood because I lack a personal investment in Catholicism which other viewers will possess; I found Bad Jews much more interesting despite that play’s characters’ lack of internal conflicts, whereas the ones here battle both themselves and each other, as do those in Doubt: a Parable. But with such a weak protagonist, and supporting characters who are blind-sided by dilemmas they should have already given ample consideration, their battling is little more than flailing. The play is well directed, designed, and acted, but its commentary is banal.
Reviewed June 15, 2015
For more information, see Body + Blood’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at The Gift Theatre, 4802 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $20-35; to order, call 773-283-7071. Show are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:30 pm through August 19. Running time is ninety minutes with one intermission.