Passion Play 

A priest's infatuation with real life redefines his spirituality.

The simple intimacies of family life tug at Father Edmond.
  • The simple intimacies of family life tug at Father Edmond.
We've come a long way since 1938, when Father Flanagan uttered his famous line, "There is no such thing as a bad boy" in the film Boys Town. Spencer Tracy's Catholic priest was referring to the scruffy but lovable delinquents he was trying to help, but these days, such words from the mouth of a holy man would lead one to assume he's diddling the altar boys.

This ultimate abuse of power -- a man of God using his station in life to get into the pants of pre- or post-adolescent children -- was given a powerful dramatic presentation on Broadway last year in John Patrick Shanley's Doubt. Now the Cleveland Play House is chiming in with its world premiere of Custody of the Eyes, a play by Anthony Giardina, which only obliquely refers to priestly pedophilia. The central struggle is built around the concept of what it means to be spiritual, and this production succeeds in making that issue immediate, resonant, and relevant for believers and atheists alike.

Showcased as part of the Play House's FusionFest, a multidisciplinary festival of new work in dance, theater, and music, Custody unfolds the story of a young priest, Edmond LeBlanc, who has abandoned his small island parish to help educate and care for the profoundly handicapped son of one of his congregants. The church has sent a bishop, Donald Leger, and a Benedictine monk, Robert Sullivan, to the small community in Maine to unearth the relationship Edmond has with Sheila Rosenthal, the boy's mother.

During the trip to the island, we learn that Bishop Leger is shell-shocked by the precipitous drop in esteem his profession has suffered and that Sullivan has a secret he wants to discuss. Switching back and forth in time and place, the playwright sketches out two perspectives on the spiritual journey: the road not taken (Sullivan was tempted by an adolescent, but did not succumb) and the road being followed by Edmond, toward deep personal involvement and away from the distancing rituals of prayer and solitude.

Giardina manages to orchestrate these plotlines with skillful characterizations and a pleasingly adept wit. While Edmond is fairly stiff and uptight, befitting a newbie priest, Sheila is quirky and admirable, without ever coming off as saintly. Her commitment to her son, Riley, is understandable and deeply felt: When she was encouraged to put her infant boy into an institution, she explains, "I heard a voice that said, 'Keep him.'" And now, as her virtually comatose child is in his second decade, far exceeding the usual life span for those with his rare debilitating condition, she is still waiting with some frustration for another moment of such unambiguous clarity.

When Sheila asks Edmond to give Riley communion, Edmond is perplexed, since a child has to recognize what the host is, and Riley can only moan in response to questions. Meanwhile, the priest is drawn to Sheila, in an attraction that is part sexual, but mostly just intoxicatingly personal. He is caught between his desire to immerse himself in Sheila's life and the call of his religion to be apart: "In prayer, you have to think of the cross. You have to empty yourself." He notes that, before he met Sheila, the "wee souls" he imagined in prayer were interchangeable parts, but now they're real, and he can't tear himself away from them.

A strong Play House cast under the direction of Michael Butler keeps the playwright's vision down to earth. Even though his character is a bit of a blank slate, Joseph Collins pumps life into Edmond and makes his conflict tangible. As Sheila, Jan Leslie Harding is entirely credible as a woman looking for help in the face of her son's inevitable death. Harding's offhand delivery and scratchy voice help shape Sheila's dented but resilient persona.

Played with gruff candor by J.R. Horne, the wisecracking bishop complains about the contemporary state of the Catholic Church. His traveling partner, Sullivan, is given a sharp and sympathetic portrayal by Kenneth Tigar, who uses his deferential smile and obsequious posture to hide the hurt arising from the flirtation with sin that banished him to the hinterlands of the religious landscape. Two smaller roles are handled with imagination and zest by Paula Duesing as the secretary of the rectory and Mark Mayo as a townie with a heart of gold.

In a world where many of us remove ourselves from personal involvement with the pain and terrors of others, whether close to us or across the seas, the messages in Custody will echo for some time.

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