Aidan Sullivan and Trent Dawson in The Revival
(© Jim Ryan Photography)
Aidan Sullivan and Trent Dawson in The Revival
(© Jim Ryan Photography)
It's amazing how the last ten minutes of a play can completely ruin the effectiveness of the overall work. But that's exactly what happens in Samuel Brett Williams' new drama The Revival, being presented at Theatre Row under Michole Biancosino' direction, which fails to live up to the promise of its premise.

The play revolves around Eli (Trent Dawson), a Harvard-educated preacher who has returned to Arkansas to take over what used to be his father's church. However, the congregation often finds Eli's sermons too abstract and intellectual, and attendance numbers are dwindling.

Trevor (Raymond McAnally), the church's financial administrator, has invited representatives from the Southern Baptist Board of Churches to hear Eli preach, with the hope that they can become a member church, and have access to all the resources that go hand in hand with being part of the mega-Church movement. Trevor has also told them that they'd be coming the same week as the church's annual "Revival" -- which, of course, hadn't existed until that moment. Eli is resistant, as what he wants to do is "bring some progressive thinking" into the minds of his congregation.

But while Eli talks a good game, his actions are more suspect. He is betraying his wife June (Aidan Sullivan, who gives a nicely layered performance) by carrying on an extramarital -- and homosexual -- affair with a homeless youth named Daniel (David Darrow, whose portrayal is a tad shallow). As an incriminating photograph threatens to destroy what he's been building, Eli is forced to confront his personal failings, desires, and own sense of morality.

The focus on the mega-Church movement, and the kind of money and political power that it can provide, is the most interesting part of the play -- even if it serves primarily as backdrop for Eli's personal crisis. And while there are some interesting segments involving the way Eli tries to reconcile his homosexual acts with his commitment to God, the playwright eventually turns to shocking plot twists rather than meaningful character development.

Dawson is charismatic and expressive, and able to provide several needed nuances to his portrayal of Eli. However, what he can't do is make the character's final transition believable. The overly melodramatic conclusion not only throws any kind of complex treatment of faith and sexuality out the window, it avoids dealing with the repercussions of Eli's actions -- which are so extreme that they just don't make logical sense, particularly for a man who prides himself on his intellect.