BOTTOM LINE: A refreshingly layered tale of one preacher's struggle between conflicting desires, The Revival is also well-acted, well-written, and professionally produced.
If I said that The Revival is about a Baptist preacher who is married, and secretly having "relations" with a man, and this all takes place in Arkansas, you could be forgiven for thinking that you've seen this all before. The man rails against homosexuality in the pulpit, scurries off to his lover, and then slings home to his unknowing wife. It's a story about hypocrisy and the dangers of homophobia, where everyone's a dumb hick. Right?
Well, not really. One could describe The Revival this way, but to do so would be a big injustice. Playwright Samuel Brett Williams has managed to turn stock character types (like the hypocritical Baptist preacher) into complex depictions of human beings struggling with difficult problems. This isn't simply a Ted Haggard tale, in which we all get to sit smugly in judgment of the evilly homophobic (and homosexual) religious maniac. Instead, at least until its rather abrupt ending, The Revival takes such a man seriously, and is therefore much more interesting.
Eli is a Harvard educated preacher who has returned home to rural Arkansas to take over his father's church. Mega-churches are springing up all around him, seducing away his parishioners. So Eli must figure out a way to win them back while staying true to his beliefs about religion - he wants his sermons to be more rational and thoughtful than fire and brimstone. Enter Daniel, a poor young man who makes no secret of who he is, or of his desire for Eli.
As Eli, Trent Dawson gives a remarkable performance – we understand Eli's dilemma, even if we believe we would never put ourselves in such a position. In fact, Dawson's performance is a big reason why The Revival avoids getting stuck in the easy stereotypes that one might expect from such material. David Darrow is also excellent as the unapologetic gay drifter Daniel - he's sexy yet still believably destitute. Aidan Sullivan plays Eli's wife June, who is perhaps the least appealing of the four characters; Sullivan makes a game effort at humanizing this initially unlikable woman. As Brother Trevor, Raymond McAnally provides much of the humor in this piece. Most importantly, he manages to be funny without making fun.
It isn't surprising that Williams hails from Hot Springs, Arkansas (where The Revival is set). If the actors aren't spot-on with their accents, I couldn't tell, mostly because Williams has such an excellent ear for this specific Arkansas dialect. Every turn of phrase is not only colorful, but clearly authentic, and this writing also helps minimize the "dumb hick" factor.
Kevin Judge's set is impressive for an off-off-Broadway production – huge beams of wood create the framework of a rather imposing rural church, one which houses all of the various locations (including a cabin, a dining room, and an Applebee's). Ben Hagen's lighting is also especially strong, as are Emily Pepper's costumes. There is even a small church choir AND additional cast members who play the church congregation. Overall, Project Y's production is incredibly professional looking; I had to check twice to confirm that I wasn't seeing an off-Broadway show.
My biggest qualm with The Revival is the ending. I won't give it away, but I found it somewhat sudden, and perhaps needlessly conclusive. I wanted more ambiguity. And given the character development until this point, I'm also not sure it is warranted. But if you can get past this (and since it is only a minute or two of stage time, that shouldn't be hard), The Revival certainly has much to offer.
(The Revival plays at the Lion Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, through September 25, 2010. Performances are Tuesdays at 7pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $18 and can be purchased at telecharge.com or by calling 212.239.6200 . For more information visit projectytheatre.org.)