by: JK Clarke
There’s nothing that precipitates one’s undoing like the devastating loss of a loved one. Of the few events that can truly alter one’s personality, intense grief is a mainstay. And it is the overwhelming grief of a father and daughter that lead us to the circumstances of The Preacher and the Shrink, written by Merle Good and playing now at the Beckett Theatre. Dr. Michael Hamilton (Tom Galantich) is the much admired and beloved pastor in a small Pennsylvania town. Seven years prior, he lost the wife he adored to breast cancer and he is estranged from his daughter, Constance (Adria Vitlar), a poetry professor in her early 20s. When we meet Constance she has returned to teach poetry at a local university in the smallish town where her father lives and is seeking counseling from a psychiatrist, Dr. Alexandra Bloomfield (Dee Hoty). It’s a darned good thing, too, because Connie is in serious need of some help. But Dr. Bloomfield isn’t much of a shrink (she tosses off platitudes like she’s recording a Public Service Announcement), and doesn’t seem appropriately alarmed after an expletive-filled session in which Connie rants about her father, then exposes her breasts and declares them the enemy that’s trying to kill her (to be fair, she’s terrified she has the same cancer gene responsible for her mother’s death). That Connie has a critical chemical imbalance and needs to be medicated immediately, seems to slip by the doctor (but not the audience).
As is often the case with severe mental illness, things escalate rather quickly. Connie has a disastrous meeting with her father, then accuses the priest who works under him, Reverend David Wheeler (a very pious Mat Hostetler) of molesting her. She threatens to expose “crime,” ruining the innocent David and disgracing the parish. Before long, she has manipulated her father into a Faustian bargain that will surely end his career but save David. It’s all very maddening.
The Preacher and the Shrink has all the elements of a dilemma-filled drama, but somehow it doesn’t work because so many elements don’t wash. The too young, and too unstable Connie is hard to believe as a college level professor of poetry. And the fact that the psychiatrist—who also becomes inadvertently involved with both her father and Michael, professionally and otherwise (she seems to get sexier with each scene)—doesn’t recognize the severity of Connie’s illness and address the problem directly (which could have solved all of the central problems of the play), is perplexing. The cast, and director Steven Yuhasz do what they can with the material, but it can never be enough. One wants to stand up and shout common sense solutions that these seemingly educated and emotionally mature people are incapable of arriving at. The play, as a whole, feels unfinished or perhaps merely unpolished.
In the end we are led to believe that all anyone needs is hugs and tenderness in a time of grief and that problems can be solved with love and openness. While those feelings are all quite nice, it’s a naïve worldview and a dangerous one, especially when you see someone suffering so much who’s just out of reach of very necessary professional help.
The Preacher and the Shrink. Through January 4, 2014 at the Beckett Theatre, Theater Row (410 West 42nd Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues). www.thepreacherandtheshrink.com
Photos: Carol Rosegg