100 Saints You Should Know

100 Saints You Should Know is a play that you should see. What I love about this new drama by Kate Fodor is that it asks the big cosmic questions and isn't afraid not to answer them: this is a play that guides us toward discovering what we think, now that we're grown up, about a lot of the stuff we pondered when we were young and then set aside to go about the complicated business of living. That's what Fodor's characters find themselves doing here—the so-called adults, anyway.

Another of the terrific notions of this piece is that we're all always child and parent, and so Father Matthew McNally, a Catholic priest, is seen as both many people's spiritual advisor and one woman's son; and Theresa, the single mother who cleans Matthew's rectory, is depicted as his metaphorical "daughter" as well as mother to her own biological child, an unruly and questing 16-year-old named Abby.

Fate brings them together, at the home of Matthew's mother, for a transforming night filled with incident and talk. Matthew has come home because he's been asked to leave the Church for three months of introspection and prayer. Some incriminating pictures were found in his possession (photos of beautiful young men, torn from a book by the artist George Platt Lynes). Matthew hasn't admitted it yet to anyone, but he clearly won't ever return to his post; what he's doing now, above all, is re-evaluating what he wants and needs from life.

Theresa, cleaning Matthew's rooms after he left, came across a book that she now brings to him at his mother's house. The book is obviously a pretext, and Theresa eventually confides in Matthew that she's looking for some spiritual guidance. Her life hasn't gone at all satisfactorily, and, recalling a book she read as a child (the book that gives the play its title), she's hoping to find a way to restore faith that's badly damaged.

Theresa brings Abby with her, but rather than go in the house with her mother, Abby stays outside and befriends Garrett, a boy her own age who delivers groceries to Matthew's mother. Garrett, alone and slightly drunk on the whiskey he's been wandering around the neighborhood drinking, eventually confides in Abby about his anxieties regarding his sexuality. Abby, half-teasing, half-having him on, talks him into taking off his clothes and climbing a tree. As Act One comes to a close, Abby is banging on the door of the house, with Garrett in tow, badly cut and woozy from a bad fall.

And then fate continues to do what it does; I won't tell more, because as I said, you need to see this remarkable play for yourself. All of the characters—including Matthew's elderly and curmudgeonly mother, Colleen—find their faith shaken and tested and search for ways to restore it; the play suggests that one answer may lie in caring for one another, and maybe then only if the caring is unconditional.

There is such richness in this intelligent, touching, and enormously human play! There is much food for thought here; much to contemplate after the story of these five homely souls has run its course. One striking idea that stayed with me is that institutionalized homophobia is at the core of both male characters' current tragic circumstances; you will, I think, find many more such notions as you plumb the depths that Fodor lays out for you here.

Ethan McSweeny's production is exemplary (with one flaw: the too-slow transitions between scenes are filled with music, often vocals, that really do break the flow). The actors are exceptional, with Jeremy Shamos delivering the finest performance of his career as the troubled priest, Matthew; Janel Moloney as Theresa and Zoe Kazan as Abby, both splendid; the formidable Lois Smith as Colleen, exhibiting palpable chemistry with Shamos that really raises the stakes in their difficult mother/son relationship; and the excellent young actor Will Rogers who, as Garrett, is believably 16 and believably scared, conflicted, buoyant, and proud. Rogers is definitely a talent to keep an eye on.

Rachel Hauck's set, dominated by a big silver tree and characterized by screens and set pieces that slide and circle magically around the stage to reveal the various locations in the play, feels like the perfect home for Fodor's thoughtful drama.

Playwrights Horizons, kicking off a season of works by relatively new/emerging writers, does itself proud with 100 Saints You Should Know. It's a propitious start to the fall off-Broadway season as well.