The world premiere of Maurice Chauvet’s “Ascension” is both delight and disappointment. After a forceful first act that sets up engrossing situations, the story loses its way, talking out conflicts rather than dramatizing them, and turning preachy, as though one of its main characters, Father Matthew, had done a last-minute rewrite of the script.
Chauvet’s inventive premise involves a 12-year-old girl (never seen) and the pain her family suffers when she’s nailed for shoplifting. The girl’s mother, Beth (Sarah Aldrich), must endure endless criticism of her parental deficiencies from her intrusive mother-in-law, Anne (Kate McGregor-Stewart). Locked in the middle is Beth’s husband, Charlie (Daniel Murray), who labors unsuccessfully to preserve the peace.
Charlie, it develops, is dealing with a disastrous crisis of his own: He’s the adult equivalent of his daughter, a lawyer who has overcharged and bilked clients, at one point billing 23 hours to one firm and 12 to another for the same day. He conceals an upcoming company audit from Beth, an audit that might destroy his career and family and also threatens calculating senior colleague Dawn (Rosemary Boyce).
Although the parallel plots of thieving father and daughter never knit together tightly, director Michael Angelo Stuno sustains interest and refrains from making the majority of his characters too black or white.
This changes with the arrival of Father Matthew (Michael Gallagher), a priest who is compassionate, slightly insecure and genuinely puzzled that the Catholic Beth has abandoned her faith.
At first, these two project a promising air of sexual tension and Gallagher, a sensitive actor, tries to suggest levels of ambiguity. But before long, Father Matthew becomes a saccharine saint. His relentless goodness has a deadening effect on the dramatic situations, since he’s never permitted to become human through messy, intense emotion. When Charlie demands the priest stay away from his wife, the potential explosiveness of the sequence is dissipated by civilized talk and advice-giving.
Even less satisfying is a climactic exchange between Beth and her pious but poisonous monster-in-law. An excellent actress, McGregor-Stewart makes Anne an accusing bitch throughout the story. When she turns tender and sentimental at the last minute, the sugary transition ushers in a shaky, uncertain climax.
At his best, Chauvet is a superior playwright, and the early moments enable a strong cast to show their talent. As Beth, a troubled young woman who longs to cut through a thick net of lies and establish honesty in her marriage, Aldrich is an impressive blend of beauty and strength. In the evening’s strongest confrontation, she faces her husband with unforgiving fury, projecting a raw mix of rage and hurt.
Daniel Murray’s Charlie brings clenched-jaw conviction to an overly subdued role. Murray is believable as a fundamentally decent man who made a mistake, yet he’s curiously passive, even in scenes that call for a more violent reaction. Murray has the ability to take this character further if encouraged by more driving direction.
Dawn, the corporate killer who tosses out such nuggets as “Everyone’s a liar, everyone’s in on some big scam” and “Genocide is a good thing,” is evil incarnate, and Boyce sinks her teeth into the part. Marissa Hall excels portraying Anne’s 30-year-old daughter who goes to ludicrous lengths to avoid her mother’s disapproval.
In the end, though, a fine play founders on the proselytizing presence of Father Matthew. Resolutions are too easy, and the emotional and spiritual ascensions of the characters remain unconvincing.