The story at the center of Custody of the Eyes is more complicated than the usual priest-diddles-little-boy routine. Anthony Giardina's play — which is making its world premiere at the Cleveland Play House — questions faith, humanity, and the line between them. "Everybody is testing somebody," says director Michael Butler. "Friends test friends, people test their own relationship with God — it's an interesting concentric circle of people needing things from each other."

As the play opens, a bishop and cleric are investigating Edmond, a young priest accused of sleeping with Sheila, a female parishioner. Custody of the Eyes unfolds as a mystery, chronicling a knotty relationship that begins when Sheila brings her 11-year-old son, who has a rare brain disease, to Edmond for communion. "We know something has happened," says Butler. "But something went wrong, and we get it in tantalizing little bits."

Playwright Giardina — a noted short-story and essay writer whose work has appeared in Esquire and Harper's — doesn't fall back on easy stereotypes. The priest isn't merely a flawed man of the cloth who questions his devotion when the secular world flashes its breasts. And the mother isn't just a temptress out to steal a conflicted soul from his church. "These are small, intense, and very real events going on between these people," says Butler. "But there are also big ideas [in the play]. You don't want to stomp on either of them."

Custody of the Eyes has never played onstage before. Butler says the challenges in staging it for the first time can be both exhilarating and frightening. "I read the play a hundred times to figure out how to do it," he says. He gives props to the cast, including Joseph Collins — just off Broadway's The Glass Menagerie — as the conflicted priest.

However, it's Giardina's words that inspired Butler most during preproduction. "People will be talking about this one," he says. "It's a thinking man's Thorn Birds."
Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.; Thu., May 11, 1:30 p.m. Starts: April 28. Continues through May 21

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