Since John Patrick Shanley's Tony-winning play "Doubt" burst onto Broadway in 2005, dramatic depictions of corruption in the clergy seem to have come even further into vogue.
Fueled by church corruption scandals that have come to light over the past decade, the public has developed an insatiable curiosity about men of the cloth who succumb to their base desires. There's more than a little schadenfreude involved in that appetite, no doubt, and it has been exploited to great effect by the likes of Shanley and filmmakers like Carlos Carrera and Pedro Almodovar.
With "On the Way to Heaven," which opened Thursday at the Alleyway Theatre in a production by Theatre Plus, playwright Carolyn Nelson makes a weak entry into this blossoming genre. The show, which dispenses with the moral ambiguities of "Doubt" and replaces them with poorly concealed melodrama, tells the story of an unscrupulous Lutheran pastor (Roger Van Dette) and the painfully naive woman he seduces (Tammy Reger).
Nelson's script gets off to a good start with a playful and revealing conversation between Ruthann (Reger), a religiously devoted but unhappily married woman, and Alice (Joy Scime), a crotchety septuagenarian who spends her time washing dishes at the church and dispensing clever platitudes about the vagaries of church life. Alice is there to occupy her time rather than for any religious purpose ("I'm whatever's within walking distance," she says, explaining her tendency to switch religious denominations at will). But Ruthann, who feels a genuine connection to her religion, is devoted to the church and finds a refuge there from a home life that's less than satisfying.
Pastor Lee Ogren (Van Dette), on the other hand, is practically a caricature from the start. Nelson wastes no time in casting him as a villain who pines for Ruthann's affections in a less-than-chivalrous way. Before we know it, we're whisked away to a hole-in-the-wall tavern where the pastor brings Ruthann under the pretense of discussing a bigger role for her in the church. They down a few drinks, the talk turns quasi-romantic and off they go to the pastor's apartment.
The remainder of the play devolves into a particularly theistic soap opera, peppered with lines from the pastor like: "Life happens. You get dealt the cards and you do with them what you will." And, from Ruthann: "All I hear is the sound of your robes, swishing behind you. . . . I'm not even thinking about Jesus. I'm thinking about how it feels when you hold me."
Talk about losing your religion.
Before long, as if on cue, the pastor loses interest in Ruthann and in one overwritten scene of many, she has a complete nervous breakdown in the church's sacristy.
The character of the compassionate assistant pastor Gordon Hildebrand (Michael Seitz) seems like a hokey effort on Nelson's part to make the head pastor even more devilish and create amped-up sympathy for Ruthann. It doesn't pan out that way, and the character winds up seeming largely superfluous.
The performances are decent, given the material, but direction by Kim Piazza is clunky. In conversations with Alice and others, Reger speaks into the audience rather than with the character she should be addressing, making the already difficult suspension of disbelief practically impossible. Lighting by Neal Radice is nicely executed, and his sets are competent.
"On the Way to Heaven"
Review: Two stars (out of four)
Presented through Feb. 21 in Alleyway Theatre, 1 Curtain Up Alley. For more information, call 852-2600 or visit www.alleyway.com.