By now it’s an all-too-familiar story: A powerful institution is racked by news of long-standing sexual abuses as the innocent are further victimized by a code of silence that protects the powerful and perpetuates their crimes. And if Harvey Weinstein doesn’t exactly make a cameo appearance in An Undivided Heart, Yusuf Toropov’s riveting spiritual thriller about the Boston Archdiocese’s cover-up of pedophile priests in the 1990s, it will surprise no one that the probing philosophical conundrum driving its action leads directly to #MeToo.
The only surprise may be how long it took Toropov’s fictional account, which received its first reading at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Playwrights Conference in 1994, to finally get to the Echo Theater Company stage. (The world premiere is being co-produced with Circle X Theater.)
Set in 1992 on designer Amanda Knehans’ crimson-red riot of overturned furniture and displaced post supports, and a full decade before a Boston Globe investigation made world headlines and led to the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law, the play opens with Mike (a superb Matthew Gallenstein), the play’s tortured, Hamlet-like priest/hero, in the throes of a recurring dream. A young black girl (Ann’Jewel Lee) dressed in white stands before a burning typewriter, a dead cat in one hand and a butcher’s knife in the other. “Save the life of that doomed cat,” she cryptically intones. “Swear here that Nansen’s cat will safe depart.”
For the mystically inclined priest, though the meaning of the cryptic command is elusive (hint: It turns out to be a well-known Zen koan), the vision is unquestionably tied to his contorted indecisiveness over whether to go through with publishing his own exposé of the church’s inaction over sexual predator priests. That book is in the final stages of being readied for print by his publisher brother, Max (a nicely centered Tim Wright). But Mike’s choice in the matter is hijacked when galley pages are somehow leaked to the diocesan chancery. Called on the carpet by the cardinal (a chillingly smooth John Getz in a role double-cast with William Salyers) and suddenly finding himself trapped between the rock of obedience and the hard place of conscience, Mike reluctantly agrees to drop the book.
But fate intervenes in the form of a chance meeting between Max, whose own spiritual quest has led him to abandon the church in favor of Zen Buddhism, and the pregnant Lynne Callahan (Alana Dietze in a searing performance), a worker at the same superfund chemical waste dump that has fatally poisoned her husband. When she goes into labor and the baby is delivered stillborn, Max raises the injustice of the senseless tragedy with his Zen teacher Janice (Tracey A. Leigh/Jennifer A. Skinner), who reveals that she shares the same dream that is haunting Mike and that Lynne may hold its answer.
As in any good mystery, Toropov torques his plot with just enough well-paced clues to keep the audience pleasantly off-balance while preserving the story’s capacity to surprise in spite of the obvious inevitability of Mike’s eventual decision. Much of the credit goes to director Chris Fields, whose fluidly cinematic production nimbly counters the material’s melodramatic tug with subtle visual humor and witty performances to leaven Toropov’s often heady plunge into New Age-y Zen philosophy.
Michael Sturgis (doubled by Kaleb King) delivers a bizarrely funny performance as a somewhat callow, Tammy Wynette–shrieking church functionary. But Dietze’s mesmerizing work as the embittered Lynne imbues the woman’s Job-like suffering with an anger and a ferocity that is finely balanced at the threshold of the blackest comedy. Ann’Jewel Lee’s weirdly haunting turn as Mike’s dream apparition is surreally David Lynch–ian. Jeff Alan-Lee gives a convincing, seat-writhing performance as the oily sociopath Father White (a role doubled by Jesse Bush). And Alison Martin provides finely felt and coolly unsentimental support as Lynne’s cancer-doomed mother.
But it is the play’s philosophic investigation of the trap laid by 2,000 years of Western dualism that ultimately speaks to the common corruption at the root of all sexual predation. By adhering to fallacious, binary gender concepts or enforcing warped, oppositional thinking about the spiritual versus the carnal and the religious versus the secular, Toropov suggests that society has not only divided itself but that such divisions are the very root of its inhumanity, whether it plays out on a casting couch or inside a church confessional.
Echo Theater Company, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater; through April 16. (310) 307-3753, echotheatercompany.com.
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