Playwright watch: A priest walks into the Playhouse…

The Martha's Vineyard Playhouse's Monday Night Specials feature readings by playwrights. — MV Times File Photo

A Catholic priest is struggling with his faith and the tenets of the church while mourning the loss of his mother to lung cancer. Not exactly the stuff of comedy. However, “Sweetened Water,” the first play by author and frequent CNN contributor Edward L. Beck, deals with some pretty heavy issues with a light touch and a good deal of humor.

Kicking off the Monday Night Special series at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, a reading this past Monday of “Sweetened Water” drew a sellout crowd. The play featured performances by Amy Brenneman, Brooke Adams, and Stephen G. Anthony, with D’Arcy Dersham and Brian Keane from the Playhouse’s current production “The Whaleship Essex” in small roles.

In a Q&A following the performance, the playwright quoted the common advice, “Write what you know.” As a Catholic priest, Mr. Beck is very familiar with some of the controversies surrounding the church. His play explores touchy territory such as the perception of the church with pedophile priests in the news. But mainly the seriocomedy explores the priestly vow of celibacy and the question of where does a clergyman draw the line between intimacy as a spiritual advisor and intimacy on a more human level.

This is all very familiar ground for Father Beck, who has been tapped variously by ABC News, CBS News, FOX News, CNN, HLN, and MSNBC to comment on issues of ethics, morality, and religion. The charismatic priest is also the executive producer of the Sunday Mass on the ABC Family Channel, and previously he co-hosted “Focus on Faith” for ABC News. Father Beck is also the author of three non-fiction books.

The play is set on Martha’s Vineyard and deals with a priest taking his own meditative break after leading a retreat here. Like his protagonist, Father Beck does lead retreats on the Vineyard and elsewhere. While on the Island on vacation following one retreat, he found himself in a situation similar to that which is depicted in his play. However, as far as the play’s menage-a-trois of sorts, Father Beck explained that part came purely from his imagination. He noted that writing the play was a way for him to tread on territory forbidden to a man in his position. “I feel constrained in some areas,” he said. “How can I explore issues like celibacy? Fiction is a way to do it.”

Recognizing that some of the play’s language and sexual scenarios might strike the audience as a little shocking coming from the pen of a Catholic priest, Father Beck explained that priests are often misperceived as less human than they truly are.

One audience member asked Father Beck what he thought the Pope would think of the play. The priest/playwright answered that as long as His Holiness wasn’t asked to publicly condone it, “I think he’d love it.” Monday night’s audience certainly did, giving the actors and playwright a standing ovation.

The next Monday Night Special reading is “Tevye, Two Daughters, and a Cow” written by Sholem Aleichem, 7:30 pm, Monday, July 14, hosted by the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse and held at the M.V. Hebrew Center in Vineyard Haven. $25 donation. For more information, call 508-687-2452 or visit