A gunshot rings out as local playwright Rich Espey’s “The Revelation of Bobby Pritchard,” begins. Six more will sound over the course of this roughly 90-minute saga, presented at the Theater Project, about confronting the past, about how intolerance and ignorance can lead to violence, about how trauma can only be repressed for so long. Each shot triggers a new journey down the rabbit hole of a character’s memory. Each of those foggy remembrances adds a new wrinkle to “Revelation’s” story and complicates the characters’ relationships. Repetition is a trusty literary device that enables just such reconsiderations and recontextualizations, but there is such a thing as turning something over too many times.
In this play’s case, what keeps being re-examined is how lies get passed off as truths. Marta (Julie Herber) has returned to her small southern hometown to tell her brother Hank (Dave LaSalle) why she left so many years ago, when he was but a boy. Nightmares have plagued the grown-up Marta recently, and her wife Cyn (Susan Porter) encourages her to confront the violent past that sent her fleeing decades back. It’s going to involve disclosing some difficult things about her father, and just what happened to the young man Marta intended to marry, Bobby Pritchard, who supposedly killed himself the night before their wedding.
Bobby, according to local lore, couldn’t deal with his homosexuality, and ever since the tragedy of his suicide the town built a center that bears his name. Young people are sent there to learn not to act on their urges. Hank’s baseball-playing son Poss (Sean Kelly) is dispatched there after being caught kissing the shortstop of another team. And that’s where Poss meets human firecracker Mary Charles (Heather Peacock), who knows the Robert Pritchard Facility for Struggling Youth is every kind of hogwash. The journey Marta begins—to return home and tell everybody what really happened to Bobby Pritchard—leads her to want to remarry Cyn on the steps of the church she grew up attending. And that’s where she’s standing, alongside Cyn, Hank, Poss, and Mary Charles, when the gunshots start.
If only the play were so straightforward. Many actors play multiple characters—Peacock and Kelly become, respectively, the young Marta and Bobby Pritchard himself in flashbacks (and in the grown Marta’s nightmares); LaSalle plays both Hank and Marta and Hank’s father as well. Sarah Lynn Taylor, who plays Mary Charles’ God-fearing mother Kathy, doubles as young Marta and Hank’s mom. Thematically these doublings make narrative sense—the young people dealing with their sexuality are played by the same actors, the mothers and fathers accepting (or refusing to accept) who their children are played by the same performers—but as the play unfolds, we begin to feel the chessboard stiffness to this arrangement.
Actually, the neutering of feeling is “Revelation’s” biggest hurdle. Espey’s script relies on a rigid schematic to explain, qualify, and clarify the thematic content. The play feels more short story than theatrical: We keep being told what’s going on instead of shown what people are going through, and it dilutes the drama. There’s an understated, Flannery O’Connor-esque tension in the title—you know from the get go that “revelation” is a loaded word choice—but too often the script actualizes its conflicts and concerns as dialogue. I lost count of how many times a character says, “an inconvenient truth beats a pretty lie” in the play, a phrase that explicitly articulates the play’s beating heart. The first time it’s said the ears prick up; it has an aphoristic importance. But by the third or fourth time it’s become innocuous. Meaning, like any malleable material, becomes brittle if you keep hammering on it.
And there’s something to be said for preserving a little mystery in your story, even when it’s as obviously heartfelt as Espey’s is here. Director Steven J. Satta and set designer Mollie Singer wisely keep the play’s visuals minimal and a bit oneiric: The set is a stark, expressionistic facade of a wooden church, the morality defining role religion plays in these people’s lives nicely serving as the actual backdrop. And the performers, especially Kelly and scene-stealer Peacock, admirably handle the play’s time slippages and character swaps. But by “The Revelation of Bobby Pritchard’s” close, the play starts to feel like an album by a band that has but one really great song: The lead-off track is awesome, but toward the end of side two its luster is lost.