avow tr.v 1. To acknowledge openly, boldly, and unashamedly; confess. 2. To state positively.
Read the above definition carefully (courtesy of The American Heritage Dictionary): it tells you everything you need to know about the subject matter and themes of Bill C. Davis's excellent new play Avow. Well, perhaps not quite everything: for that, we need to look to the title's homophone:
(a) vow n 1. An earnest promise to perform a specified act or behave in a certain manner, especially a solemn promise to live and act in accordance with the rules of a religious order. 2. A declaration or an assertion.
Avow is all about vows and avowing: it's about finding balance in a maze of promises and confessions and assertions, made to oneself and to one's God. Davis can't conclusively answer the questions he raises in this intelligent and thoughtful play, but he pushes us squarely in the center of a lively and provocative debate about the most fundamental and essential questions that human beings face.
It all starts when Brian and Tom visit their parish priest, Father Raymond, and ask him to sanctify their intended marriage vows. To their surprise--for they have come to respect Father Raymond as a liberal and forward-thinking sort of guy--he refuses. Further, he tells them that the Church can never sanction even their acts of lovemaking: because homosexual sex is by definition not procreative, it is forbidden. Brian is outraged, but Tom is reflective: the priest's response has struck a chord somewhere in Tom's consciousness, and he begins to question whether he can ever make love to Brian (or any other man) ever again.
And so begins a complicated chain reaction in which these three men and those closest to them examine, challenge, and renew their faith in God and the Church and themselves. Brian's sister Irene is single and pregnant; he and Tom are planning to adopt and raise her baby as their own. Clearly much more than a disinterested bystander, Irene tries to mediate between Brian and Tom and Father Raymond, only to find that she is deeply attracted to the priest. That attraction turns out to be mutual, forcing Father Raymond to re-evaluate his own choices vis-a-vis the Church and his own life. And in the meantime Brian and Irene's mother Rose learns tolerance and acceptance of her children's lifestyles and decisions from her own more enlightened confessor, Father Nash.
So from Brian and Tom's catalytic request come these five separate spiritual journeys: linked souls moving together and moving apart to each find God in his or her own way. Davis wisely steps back from his characters, seldom judging them; instead he gives them all vitality and dimension so that we care about and come to understand each one. Avow contains plenty of lively theological debate, but it's first and foremost a rich and complex human drama: there's nothing theoretical about Brian's breaking heart or Father Raymond's waking heart. And lest you think that Avow is deadly serious, let me add that there is also a good deal of genuine humor in this play.
An outstanding company of actors serves Davis's work immeasurably. Sarah Knowlton is exactly right as the pragmatic yet romantic Irene, imbuing her with intelligence and spunk and a smashing zest for life that makes her admirable and lovable at the same time. Christopher Sieber and Scott Ferrara are fine as Brian and Tom (respectively) in performances that are funny, warm, idiomatic, and wonderfully human. Jane Powell (yes, that Jane Powell, star of countless MGM films from days gone by) is delightful as the sweetly batty but grounded Rose; and Reathel Bean is splendidly dry and wry as her confessor Father Nash. In the most complex role, Alan Campbell is immensely appealing as Father Raymond, showing us the compromises and conflicts in which he finds himself suddenly mired, and the toll they necessarily must take on his wavering soul.
Avow is sharply and sensitively staged by Jack Hofsiss, though it seemed to me that scenes occasionally dissolved into one another rather more quickly than absolutely necessary. David Jenkins's unit set is effective and Julie Weiss's contemporary costumes are attractive and appropriate. Ken Billington's lighting is invaluable, especially when subtly deployed to move two characters, priest and parishioner, out of the confessional and into the rectory in a smooth and gentle arc. How powerfully altered are our beliefs and assumptions once a little light is shed upon them!