Saturday, August 27, 2016

"Trust" by Self-Reliant Productions at the Lab Theater

Sometimes theater is escapist entertainment (see The Drowsy Chaperone), and sometimes it's not. Sometimes it deals with difficult real-life issues and gives a voice to people whose stories need to be heard. The new play Trust is an example of the latter. It's intense and difficult to watch, but such an important story, and an all too familiar one. This story about a survivor of clergy abuse was written by John Woehrle and inspired by the real-life experience of his friend Jim Hanson (both of whom act in the play), and it's obviously a labor of love. The creators have worked with survivor networks as they developed the piece, which makes its Twin Cities debut at the Lab Theater. I was truly impressed by this work from a first-time playwright, a first-time director (actor Rich Remedios), and actors who were mostly unfamiliar to me. Trust is a powerful play telling an important story, tough to watch but worth the effort.

The play opens on a celebration for Father Daniels (playwright John Woehrle), who was just named president of the fictional College of St. Joseph. His good friends and supporters Allen, a senator (Jim Hanson), and wife Mary (Ellen Apel) congratulate him with a few drinks at their house. As it turns out, their son Michael (a sensitive and heart-breaking performance by Michael Schwengel, reminiscent of a young Lee Pace) is not quite as thrilled with the events, for reasons that will unfold over the course of the play. In his final year at St. Joseph, his grades are slipping, he's drinking, and he dropped out of the debate team, causing his coach and adviser Father Randall (Adam Glatz) and school counselor Sister Kenny (Lynda Dahl) to worry. A scandal causes a reporter (Molly Pach) to get involved, but politics, both church and state, prove a hurdle to get over. Like many victims of abuse, Michael was not able to tell anyone about it until years later, when he finally breaks down to his friend and aspiring nun Theresa (Reyna Rios). It's then that the healing begins, as he finally is able to tell his story and work for justice for himself and other victims.

The Lab Theater is one of my favorite theater spaces in the Twin Cities (although they seriously need to do something about the parking situation, which is becoming untenable), and it's a beautiful backdrop for this story. A square is marked out on the floor with white tape, in which scenes play out with just a few chairs or a table. The cast remains on stage throughout the show, sitting quietly outside the border of the square, waiting to take their turn in the story. The play is nicely bookended with scenes of Michael first being unable to get the words out, then after we see his story play out in the square on the floor, he's able to tell his story and confront his abuser. Abuse from someone you love, trust, and look up to is the worst kind of betrayal, and this play gives survivors at least some recompense for that betrayal.

As a new play, I hope that the creators continue to develop it. With a run time of almost three hours (including intermission), it feels too long. We all knew where this story was going, but it took over an hour to get there. It would benefit from some editing to make the points more clearly and succinctly. But it has great potential - an important story, beautifully and powerfully and painfully told. Trust continues at the Lab Theater through this weekend only.