A traveling preacher gets entangled in the tense relationship between two Southern sisters while trying to maintain his morals during the Great Depression. With great performances, writing, and execution, The Oath: a southern gothic tale is an outstanding drama worth pledging your allegiance to.
Louise Flory (Cebe), Dianna Martin (Deck), Sarah Chaney (Ofah), and Maureen O'Boyle (Lady), in MTWorks' production of Jacqueline Goldfinger's The Oath April 23-May 10, 2009 at The ArcLight Theatre Photo Credit: Antonio Minino
Reviewed by Cindy Pierre
How well and how long do you think your integrity and ideals would stand against poverty and public opinion? Under what circumstances is it okay to keep secrets and tell lies? Those troublesome questions and many more are answered in the world premiere of Jacqueline Goldfinger's The Oath: a southern gothic tale, a wonderful, thought-provoking drama now playing at the Arclight Theater. In it, it’s the Great Depression, and sisters Deck (Dianna Martin) and Ophelia (Sarah Chaney) are struggling to take care of their home, their ailing father's church ministry, and their “charge” Cebe (Louise Flory), a promiscuous young woman. So when Joshua (Anthony Crep), a traveling preacher looking to repackage the gospel, comes to town, he brings not only rain showers, but the hope and faith that the town has lost. Of course, renewal tends to come with obstacles, and in Joshua's case, there are some unexpected ones.
First and foremost, it’s that although Deck’s invited him to stay in the home of a preacher he greatly admires (an even warmer sentiment, given Blair Mielnik’s beautiful and authentic set), he’s only allowed to talk to him through Ophelia (or “Opha”). Worse, Opha’s a bit spoiled—in fact, from the regal way she dresses to her haughty demeanor and carefully-coiffed pincurls, one forgets there’s a depression. Whereas Opha is a bit too structured, Cebe's lack of structure confounds and challenges him. Her wayward soul is enticing and troubling at the same time, but it doesn't stop him from trying to save her. All this leads to some nice contrasts, especially between sisters: although Dianna Martin often looks downtrodden and debilitated as Deck, she isn’t weak, and transforms from housemother to fierce mother wolf whenever the safety, integrity or reputation of her family members are threatened.
Despite some red flags, Joshua takes a job as the new preacher. His new role is met with some resistance by Lecroix (Robin Madel), the uppity wife of the church's board president and Lady (Maureen O'Boyle), one of the congregates. But Joshua presses on, stopping intermittently to deliver rousing sermons that are aided by Dan Gallagher's mood-precise lighting design. He soon finds out that this new role is much more comprehensive than he bargained for, and that balancing his love for God against his ambitions to have everyone love God is a tricky teeter-totter.
Though there are several complicated plot layers, Goldfinger marvelously unfolds the story with great dialogue and sympathetic characters. The show is paced evenly, and the themes are timely, given today's recession. It's hard to cast a stone on any character doing what they have to do to keep food on the table, even if Cebe is obviously the adulterer/prostitute in the Bible's chapter John, verse 8. She may not be getting pelted with rocks, but the scene in which a large cross with the words “whore sinner” is left by the house and the scene in which Lecroix spits in her face emulate that well enough. Director Cristina Alicea understands the turmoil of religious oppression so well that she guides Flory, endowed with the most poignant lines of dialogue and the most heart-wrenching role, to play Cebe with such pride and passion that even if she were getting hit, we would cheer her on as she went down.
The Oath is a powerful, dark tale about survival that is sometimes hard to swallow, but worth the effort. It may not be uplifting, but it is more than satisfying.
The Oath: a southern gothic tale (2 hrs, 1 intermission)
ArcLight Theatre (152 West 71st Street, NY NY 10023)
Tickets: 212-352-3101 ($18)
Through May 10th.