Take a preacher looking for a flock, a flock looking for a preacher, one “Good” sister, one “Bad” sister, a snooty churchwoman trying to bring down a house of cards and a housekeeper who’d give Alice a run for her money, set it all in the dry, hot Dust Bowl of Depression-Era Florida and you’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of Jacqueline Goldfinger’s magnificent The Oath, directed by Cristina Alicea and currently running at The Arclight Theater till May 10th.
Before the play even starts, sound designer Martha Goode and scenic designer Blair Mielnik do an amazing job of settling you into the time period as well as the underlying good ole Christian spirit by playing songs like I’ll Fly Away while you get to study the beautifully detailed and marvelously evocative set design which gets it perfect, right down to the old icebox and wooden framed forced perspective hallway.
When we first meet the wild-child Cebe Tate (Louise Flory) she’s still in her dress from the night before, doing what amounts to an early morning walk of shame if this girl had any shame; (as she proclaims to Deck [Dianna Martin], the family housekeeper that while she hasn’t been to bed yet, “I been in somebody’s bed …”) and itching to tell her older sister Ophelia (Sarah Chaney) about the “Birmingham Boy”, Joshua (Anthony Crep) who’s been preaching around town. From the looks of it, these three woman have been avoiding the sad truth that the wonderful Reverend Tate who has “abandoned the pettiness of everyday life” but “does not wish to abandon his flock” is really propped up in the back room, barely clinging to life.
While Cebe goes tearing around town, messing with the wrong boys, drinking till all hours of the night, and dragging the good Tate name through the mud, Ofah stays inside, speaking for her father, tending to church duties, and trying to keep Mrs. Lecroix’s (Robin Madel) snooping nose far away from the mysterious back bedroom. As wife of the man who runs the church board, Mrs. Lecroix has been using every opportunity to try and drive the sisters out of the house (paid for by the church) and into the streets. Which is why Joshua is such a blessing to them all; if Ofah can convince him to take over her father’s flock, while keeping his mouth shut about everything else, she could save the family’s reputation, their shelter, and their existence. As these four become entwined in the story their layers are stripped away … Cebe isn’t the one-note town whore she’d have us believe she is, and Ofah isn’t the stoic, conniving dictator she presents herself as either. Eventually everyone’s secret, including Deck’s comes to light, and we see how far each person will go to protect their own personal Oath.
Director Cristina Alicea does an amazing job bringing Jaqueline Goldfinger’s soulful characters to life; her use of the audience as congregation members is particularly effective. When Joshua addresses the dark theatre and preaches he is so impassioned that when he spoke “Grasp your neighbor’s hand … and feel their life in your hands and your life in theirs, of one body and one blood” it was all I could do to not reach out and grab my own husband’s hand, so caught up in his preaching was I (and, from what I could tell, the rest of the audience).
There is a similar moment echoed later in the play, when Cebe addresses the audience, but her sermon is much more personal, and much more heartbreaking; for all her attitude she’s desperately trying to find out who she is and what she’s meant to do. She is not so much speaking God’s word as questioning everyone’s interpretation of it. Unlike her sister Ofah, who works with the church, Cebe works with the ministry … she gets right down in there into the lives of the people, going to where they are, living their lives as they do, speaking their language. Very much like the archetypal hooker-with-the-heart-of-gold, we come to see that under all that flirting, giggling and fawning Cebe understands her father’s work perhaps more than her sister does. Similarly, under Ophelia’s straight posture, cool gaze and pinched smile there is a need to just set it all down for a moment and be human. And between these two woman, Deck and Joshua play the fulcrum, always balancing these two out so that the message doesn’t get lost in the business of it all.
Eventually they all do get it right, or as right as circumstance will allow them to … not so much a happy ending as a satisfying one where those who were on the wrong path find the right one, those who took a detour from the path get back on it, and those praying for rain finally understand that, like all things, it will come when the time is right.
THE OATH – running till May 10th at the ArcLight Theatre (152 West 71st Street New York, NY 10023)
Ticket Price: $18.00; $15.00 Students & Seniors For tickets call: 212-352-3101 or click here.