Celibacy. What good is it? Clearly it has spiritual benefits, as a means to channel the seeker’s passion into connection with the divine (Freud would have put it that way). But generally it’s on offer as a personal choice. Many Buddhist and Hindu holy men have wives and children, and some Muslim clerics not only ignore celibacy, but ratchet it up to the next polygamous level. It’s only the Catholic clergy, seemingly, who put such a strict emphasis on it, from the pope on down.
It’s a sticky wicket, starting with the historical Jesus: Many, including the best-selling author Dan Brown of “The Da Vinci Code,” believe that Mary Magdalene may have figured in the Savior’s life as more than a pure acolyte. Chaucer went to town with tales of naughty priests, and the popes of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were known for their common-law wives and illegitimate progeny.
And yet, much as we common folk puzzle over celibacy and wonder why it can’t always be optional, it does remain a valid spiritual tool, a mortification like fasting and prayer: a direct path to “the peace that passeth all understanding.”
Cut to the start of Father Edward L. Beck’s play, “Sweetened Water,” which I attended last week, now running at the Vineyard Playhouse. Father Richard (Chris Kipiniak), in white chasuble and gold stole, addresses congregants at a retreat on Martha’s Vineyard: “We are searching for ‘more,’ that elusive, redemptive ‘more.’” This “more”is a “pearl beyond price,” and we’re given the sense that this handsome young priest has tasted the redemptive “more,” and yet flounders at the elusive part. His homily inspires, and yet we sense he’s also falling apart at his ecclesiastical seams. “I’m lost,” he confesses to those who normally confess to him.
Fr. Richard’s “more” is revealed far from the altar. The drama is studded with witty dialogue and directed with effortless grace by MJ Bruder Munafo. We’re presented with a chic Edgartown summer home, three women with widely skewed relations with Father Richard, and the good priest himself, mired restlessly in a small guesthouse — “your holy hovel,” as his hostess calls it.
Cynthia, played with a fetching arc of peevishness, ire, and finally compassion and charm by Joyce Cohen, is a grieving widow. This is a grief the DSM (“Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”) has newly branded “complicated,” meaning the kind of abject and continuing sorrow that loved ones and therapists alike believe has gone on too long: Snap out of it!
Fr. Richard too is mourning the recent loss of his mom, at whose deathbed he presided both as priest and devastated son. His grief, too, is complicated.
Another complication is the lovely, lovelorn Sara, played with plangent tenderness and innate feminine strength by Danielle Slavick, a devout parishioner of Fr. Richard’s, and also his former lover, whom he abandoned in favor of, of course, God. Yet, that “peace, love, and joy” that transcend simple, romantic, carnal love remain elusive. And there’s Sara being wonderful, and the grieving and also supremely attractive Cynthia needing Richard’s pastoral — and human? — care.
And suddenly, what’s this? A gorgeous blond named Angela (Cristi Andrews) arrives on the scene. Her husband Jimmy, played to comic New Yorkese perfection by Mark Krawczk, has viewed footage of his wife and the gentle priest in a clinch on their sofa. Oh, the modern scourge of closed-circuit televisions! Jimmy is hot on her trail, and threatens to take the tale of sexual perfidy — “We were comforting each other!” declare the defendants — to the bishop.
Oh, what a tangled web a studly young cleric weaves!
The final character in “Sweetened Water” is the sumptuous set itself of Cynthia’s quaint cottage, as purveyed by set designer Lisa Pegnato, lighting designer Jeffrey E. Salzberg, master carpenter Paul Munafo (although my personal favorite of Paul’s was his Katrina rooftop and deluge of “Rising Water” by John Biguenet), scenic painters Basia Jaworska-Silva and Ella Mahoney, carpenters Gregory Mandas, Rob Myers, Nate Punches, technical director Boaz Kirschenbaum, stage manager Timothy Toothman, light board operator Brendan Rome, and scenic photographer Philip Kane. The magic rendered by this set, including lush sound effects by Benjamin Emerson of crickets, birds, horses, and the accidental ambient addition of the foghorn care of the Steamship Authority, provides to any and all hard-working Islanders, and perhaps hard-socializing summer folk — indeed all of us who struggle to enjoy chance moments of pleasure here — a vicarious Vineyard vacation.
Kudos also go to costume designer Cynthia Bermudes, who really has that Edgartown prep look going on, right down to Richard’s leisurewear, and Dan Murphy with a fine and subtle musical score.
First-time playwright Father Beck, a Roman Catholic priest, has already established a brand for himself as national and international commentator on religion for NPR, ABC News, CBS News, and others. He’s the author of three bestselling books, including “God Underneath,” “Unlikely Ways Home,” and “Soul Provider.”
Reached by phone this past week, Father Beck immediately put to rest any notion that “Sweetened Water” is autobiographical: “I drew from life the fact that I lost my own mother to lung cancer. I’ve led many retreats on the Island, and I stayed during one of them with a woman who lost her husband to lung cancer.” This inspired the artist residing within the priest to connect the fictional dots and see where they led.
Another aspect that Father Beck drew from life is the closeness of many mothers with sons in the priesthood. Their boys remain undistracted by spouses: “They’ve been dedicated to God.” Another key element is the continuing chagrin of the Catholic clergy over the scandal of pedophiliac priests. At one point, Richard cries out, “What am I doing with a bunch like this?”
Father Beck maintains that even the rock-solid Catholic church could redefine celibacy as a choice rather than an unbreakable rule, thus opening it up to a wider and perhaps healthier breed of spiritual leaders: “It could change.”
“Sweetened Water” has a story that rattles along like one of Shakespeare’s comedies, and there’s a snap! crackle! and pop! of ideas. You might think its intended audience is strictly spiritual seekers, but even my stone-cold agnostic of a Unitarian mother pronounced it wonderful. On leaving the theater, Father Beck called to both of us, “God bless you!”
Have to admit, that felt great.
“Sweetened Water” runs nightly, Tuesday through Saturday, until Sept. 12 at 7:30 pm. Tickets available in advance or at the door. For more information, visit mvplayhouse.org.