|L-R: Tom Galantich and Dee Hoty in THE PREACHER AND THE SHRINK,|
Dr. Michael Hamilton (Tom Galantich), the senior pastor of his church, has been estranged from his daughter, Constance Hunter (Adria Vitlar), ever since the untimely death of his wife (Constance’s mother) from breast cancer years earlier. Her death did a real job on Constance in many ways. For one thing since Constance could no longer believe in the existence of a God that would allow her mother to suffer and die as she did, it prompted her to leave her father’s church. For another thing, it caused her to abandon her home because she could not bear to experience omnipresent reminders of her mother’s life and death. Additionally, it led to her estrangement from her father, perhaps because she blamed him (as God’s representative on Earth) for what befell her mother; perhaps because she simply blamed him personally for not having found a way to save her mother himself; perhaps because he failed to assuage her pain after her mother’s passing; or, more likely, for all of those reasons. Worst of all, however, her mother’s death damaged Constance emotionally and psychologically (and perhaps irreparably), as she began to obsess over her own breasts – not only her perception of their beauty and sensuality but also her conviction that she was genetically destined to eventually suffer the same fate that befell her mother.
Rev. David Wheeler (Mat Hostetler), the junior minister in Mike’s church, only wanted to console Constance, to encourage her to return to the church and, ideally, to bring about a rapprochement between her and her father – but he got more than he bargained for. It is said that “no good deed goes unpunished” and that’s what turned out to be the case here: Constance so misconstrued David’s actions that she threatened to charge him with sexual misconduct for fondling her breast. When Constance urged her father to initiate an investigation into David’s actions, Mike was non-plussed. On the one hand he wanted to be as supportive of his daughter as he possibly could be and her charges were quite serious. On the other hand, he knew David well, he really couldn’t believe that Constance’s accusations possibly could be true, and he realized that even if David were found innocent of such charges, the very fact that they had been brought at all would be ruinous to his life and his career.
To my mind, that is the point at which The Preacher and the Shrink by Merle Good, now previewing at The Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan, really jumps the shark. Mike seeks advice from Dr. Alexandra Bloomfield (Dee Hoty), a prominent psychiatrist, as to how he should handle the situation confronting him, without realizing that Dr. Bloomfield is the woman with whom he had once had a youthful affair at a Christian summer camp (and without realizing how the loss of her virginity then had affected her). An unlikely coincidence, to be sure, but there is more: unbeknownst to Mike, Constance was one of Alexandra’s patients! Yes, some suspension of disbelief may be necessary to derive the fullest pleasure from a theatrical production, but this all does seem a bit much.
And yet the play continues to strain credulity even more. Constance offers to drop her charges against David if Mike will deliver a sermon in which he renounces his religious beliefs. It is sort of the flip side of God’s testing Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son, Isaac, as proof of his devotion to the Lord. Here Constance is testing Mike by asking him to renounce God as evidence of his devotion to his daughter. And get this: Mike actually considers Constance’s demands!
Many good plays have addressed the question of the effect that false accusations of sexual misconduct might have on innocent parties. Oleanna by David Mamet and Doubt by John Patrick Shanley are just two that come immediately to mind. The Preacher and the Shrink fits into that genre but, despite being professionally performed and well-directed, its undue reliance on coincidences in the intersections of the lives of its characters causes it to fall well short of their level of excellence.