Review: “Avow” on Mass Ave

Friday night the Indianapolis cultural district called Mass Ave was buzzing with multiple Indianapolis performing arts happenings. From the final weekends of both Sunlight at the Phoenix Theatre and Jamaica Farewell at the IndyFringe Building to the opening performance of Theatre on the Square‘s Avow, Indianapolis truly felt like a theatre town during the brief end of week twilight in Indianapolis downtown. Avow at Theatre on the Square is a well executed dramedy that tackles not only gay rights issues but also the Catholic Church, without seeming to offend either.

Known for presenting intimate theatre experiences, the Theatre on the Square is run by devoted individuals who often pull double duty. I noticed Friday evening that TOTS’ box office staff (of one) also doubled as booth operator for sound and lights. With the help of a few volunteer ushers and a curtain speech given by the director himself, the down to earth nature of Theatre on the Square’s staff creates an inviting communal experience. And though Avow takes over the theatre’s larger main stage, the show feels as personal as if it were in the cabaret space. However, this is not something one could surmise from the large and overwhelming set that spans three levels and fills every inch of acting space.

Avow presents an immediate conundrum for any producing theatre; it has multiple and varied locations throughout. From a chic restaurant (with Scholars Inn prop menus) to a confessional booth, a bedroom set, a veterinarian’s office and many many more, Avow travels all over town. Making these changes distinct and quick could defeat any conceptual team. Theatre on the Square solves the problem, somewhat, with the creation of nine separate playing spaces present on stage from the onset of the show. Scenic designers Jim Trofatter and Ron Spencer have a bit of fun with their design, placing the Catholic confessional booth just above the gay couple’s bedroom, immediately portraying conflict that will drive the couple apart.

However, towards the beginning of the show, I found myself worrying about the safety of the actors as they tip toed around these crowded playing spaces, particularly when they were in locations dedicated to the third tier of this massive set. Once they established themselves as competent on the set, I was able to trust that they wouldn’t have a horrible spill, but the tight spaces they played in still affected the events of the play. The set limited movement for the actors, making for cumbersome and stagnant blocking at times. But the riveting story paired with honest performances surmounted this obstacle. Given a choice between difficult blocking or difficult and long scene changes, as an audience member I would always choose the former over the latter.

Avow, written by Bill C. Davis, sends a religious gay couple’s relationship spinning when their request to be married by their Catholic priest is refused. As Tom (Ryan Powell) and Brian (J. Nicholas Shoemaker) approach a commitment ceremony and the birth of their child via Brian’s sister Irene (Carrie Bennet Fedor), it seems this couple has bitten off more than they can chew. To complicate things more, Irene’s  baby was not only conceived out of wedlock but by an affair with a married man. This presents immediate and obvious conflict when she decides to take on Father Raymond (David Pittman), who refused her brother’s request. Her persistence with Father Raymond on behalf of her brother’s love finds her in a precarious romantic situation with the Father. Meanwhile, Tom and Brian begin to rip at the seams, as their dreams and the church’s refusal to recognize their love drive a wedge between them.

Davis’ script offers complex conflicts from all angles. The catalyzing question posed to Father Raymond seems a bit unlikely; honestly, what Catholic church wouldn’t deny two gay men their happiness? But the events that follow are made totally believable, albeit far fetched. Through a solid structure, distinct and interesting characters and more than a few moments of sheer hilarity, Davis accomplishes his mission. And although the play is cheese-tastic at times, the script has a certain awareness of itself that makes this fact completely acceptable.

Director Ron Spencer has the unbelievable luxury to choose only scripts that inspire and excite him. The connection he makes with his selections cause his directorial style to rest on his personal passion and sense of humor. The twinkle in his eye as he gave the curtain speech, cup of coffee in hand, can be seen in each scene and heard in each joke. Despite the heavy subject matter of Davis’ script, he peppers in more than a handful of jokes, allowing his audience to relax and enjoy the story in front of them. Spencer encourages all his actors to go, full force, for laughs. The strategy not only keeps audiences engaged, but also causes nervous actors to relax, making Spencer’s shows always easy to watch.

Avow’s leading lady, Carrie Bennett Fedor in the role of Irene, is another facet that increases this show’s watch-ability. No matter the role she takes on, Fedor’s presence on stage is undeniable. It is easy to see why she has been cast as so many strong female parts this season at both Theatre on the Square and Indianapolis Civic Theatre. Fedor has a talent for seeming natural on stage. She listens intently and responds authentically to her scene partners. This tactic not only makes her an incredibly strong actress, but heightens the performances of those she shares the stage with. In Avow she is a firecracker as the pregnant concert pianist/protective sister, an absolute joy to watch for two hours.

As the lonely Father Raymond, David Pittman gives a solid performance. Pittman has perhaps the most difficult task in the show: to convey an internal conflict. Yet as he wrestles with himself over the decisions his character has made, each subsequent choice inches you to the edge of your seat. Though he lacked vocal variety and attempted to convey his internal struggle through unrealistic sighs at the end of many scenes, he was nonetheless interesting to watch. On top of that, the romantic inklings between Raymond and Irene depend on his ability to make being a priest look sexy, which he did to a tee.

The two lovers, Brian (J. Nicholas Shoemaker) and Tom (Ryan Powell) began their performances with a bit of nerves. Not an uncommon theme for many community based actors. But I was happy to see that by their first scene with Ms. Fedor, the pair had relaxed into the story. Together they accurately painted a picture of any average American couple, gay or straight. With their own problems and points of contention, they faced down the future together (and apart) with believability. Though at times the pair had the tendency to egg each other toward the melodramatic, particularly in argumentative scenes, it felt in place with the almost too perfect ending written by Davis.

A standout performance was given by Vonda Fuhrmann in the role of Rose, mother to Irene and Brian. Her comic timing and nagging motherly tone came to be a favorite of the whole audience. After a succession of confessional scenes, all Furhmann had to do to get a laugh was have the lights come up on her. Paired with an excellent straight man in Carl Cooper’s Father Nash, the two stole the show at times.

For both a fun and challenging evening out in Indianapolis art, head to Theatre on the Square for Avow, through April 10. Grab dinner at any of the nearby Indianapolis restaurants for a complete experience out in Indy. For affordable (and close) Cajun cuisine, head to Yats Cajun Restaurant. For a more upscale, elegant dining experience try Agios’ Italian Restaurant next door. Or share a pizza pie at Bazbeaux Pizza Restaurant down the street. After the curtain call, keep the conversation going with cocktails at any of these great Indianapolis bars.

Stay tuned to Indianapolis News, Event and Information on Fun City for all the latest on fun things to do in Indianapolis. Find fun in the Circle City. Support Indianapolis performing arts like Theatre on the Square. Your attendance makes an impact! Make Indianapolis culture rich! Make Indianapolis your playground this weekend as you enjoy great theatre!

Now through April 10, 2010

Theatre on the Square
627 Massachusetts Ave
Indianapolis, IN 46204