Tuesday, August 5, 2003

'Avow' merrily skims life's complications

Theater review

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Gay marriage and the Roman Catholic Church is the debate at the center of Avow, a play that is as much diagrammed debate as contemporary comedy-drama. It closes the Ovation Theatre season.

Playwright Bill C. Davis, who had great success two decades ago with Mass Appeal, a comedy-drama that softballed issues of the priesthood, busily lays out every arguing point.

None of it seems especially real, which robs Avow of any potential to persuade, but if you enjoy theater that goes down like vanilla pudding, there are some lively performances to carry the show home.

We start with gay couple Tom (Stephen Martin) and Brian (Michael Monks). The men are Catholic and want their union sanctioned by the church. In particular they want Father Raymond (A. Jackson Ford) to witness their vows.

He feels he can't, arguing that in the church's teaching, obedience outweighs desire. He points out that there are other priests who would undoubtedly perform this service, but Brian and Tom want only him.

Thickening the plot, Brian's unmarried, pregnant sister Irene (Mary Jo McClain) enters the fray, arguing to Raymond on the couple's behalf, but things get cloudy because Irene and Raymond quickly discover a mutual attraction.

The exploration of vows would mean more if either Tom or Raymond had any sex drive, but Tom embraces the concept of celibacy without anything that looks like sacrifice and Raymond appears to be trapped in the quicksand of romantic love because he's lonely and can't stand eating alone.

This is anemic, flabby playwrighting, but Davis isn't interested in creating believable, deeply conflicted characters (which the situation warrants). He uses them to support his too-easy debate, which is couched in the "spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down" theory of drama.

Happily, he's a facile writer, so things zing along, with characters saying things like, "We're salad bar Catholics - we take what we think nourishes us and leave the rest."

The big performance in Avow comes from Michelle Becker as Brian and Irene's mom, written in the comic tradition of the stereotypical Jewish mother, only Catholic. She spends untold hours in the confessional, fretting over the choices of her children and doing penance for the sin of being judgmental.

McClain, in her first local role, promises to be a welcome addition to the local small-stage scene.

Barbara Sorensen is good as the priests' no-nonsense housekeeper.

Monks is solid, but Martin is stiff as a board, which doesn't help our ability to believe in the relationship.

Director Joe Stollenwerk stages Avow in the round, which eliminates scene breaks and keeps things moving on a bare-bones set where a variety of prop pieces defines place.

Stollenwerk is less successful in establishing the necessary attraction between the couples, or creating a unified level of performance.


Avow, Ovation Theatre Company, Aronoff Center Fifth Third Bank Theater, through Saturday. 241-7469.

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