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Hey Jude

Thank God. A new play about Catholic priests that mentions neither pope nor pedophilia. It is about miracles, though, which might raise eyebrows. But the stage — as a stand-in for pulpit and courtroom — is a wise neutral forum for debating the meaning of things like miracles. In Hand of God, South Florida Everyman playwright/actor Michael McKeever's new play, a fine collaboration with Palm Beach Dramaworks, brings soft insight into the deliberations that in the end exhale welcome optimism.

The scene is St. Bernadette's Church, decaying in an unsafe urban war zone. In the church's wood-paneled study, with its chess table ready for play and its sideboard set with a crystal decanter of wine, French doors lead out into a courtyard that has just suffered some random act of terrorist mayhem.

Father Todd McKay (William Hayes) and Father Will Dickinson (Gordon McConnell) have been summoned to investigate. What they see through those French doors is destruction brought about by the parish's 72-year-old priest, Monsignor Frank Leighton (Peter Haig). The previous evening, the old man had rented a backhoe and razed the courtyard's walls.

"Why did you tear down the grounds of your church?" Father McKay asks him.

"I was told to," Monsignor Leighton responds.

It was St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, who so directed the monsignor, in a miraculous vision the priest is not at all shy about sharing with everyone, including his dwindling congregation. But is he crazy? As lead church politico, Dickinson has been dispatched to interrogate. McKay, however, has been sent for a different reason. McKay is the monsignor's former protégé — in effect, the old priest's "son" — who found his calling while growing up in St. Bernadette's rough neighborhood under the monsignor's watch. Now it's his turn to provide stewardship — of both his aging mentor and the parish.

Plays about miracles can go down a few different paths. They can veer into theological, epistemological debate and result in a wholly intellectual play, which, while satisfying, might put the matinee crowd into a slumber. They can take on a mystical sensibility, which could be as annoying as an Easter passion play or a novel about the Rapture. Or they can explore the interface between wonder and practical life in the attempt to tap out a definition of miracle that's accessible to real people in a modern world.

McKeever's play goes the latter route with an exploration of priests as regular folks. Bandages on the monsignor's hands at the play's start intimate the miracle of stigmata. But they're actually the result of not wearing gloves while ripping apart his courtyard with his bare hands. That's all; no mysticism about it, just naked hands torn apart by city concrete. The monsignor is simply an old man with a sweetly quixotic mission of keeping his church alive, while the other two priests jadedly wrangle with their own calling in a screwed-up world. "I don't know which is more insane, the monsignor having visions of St. Jude or you and I thinking we could save the world," Dickinson tells McKay.

Director Nanique Gheridian has assembled an all-star cast to fill out these real priests. Peter Haig, so terrifying last year as the coach in Palm Beach Dramaworks' production of That Championship Season, brings kind conviction to the monsignor. At the same time, Hayes provides a mysterious smirk in his McKay, the deeply quiet young man troubled by a host of problems both metaphysical and practical. Is he a priest because of true vocation or because of the monsignor's fatherly influence?

To balance out this warm mentoring relationship, McConnell, riveting last fall in Mosaic Theatre's Match, effectively portrays the high-strung Dickinson. And Karen Stephens, as the monsignor's assistant, lends a softening effect to the proceedings; in the end, her Celeste may be the true representative of miracles, a mother saved from the streets by the monsignor who then devotes her life to his church. Miracles in Hand of God find definition more through conviction, faith, and caring for others than through bright visions and oddly patterned grilled cheese sandwiches.

In that vein, McKeever has restored the rectory — from which all we've been hearing lately is bad news— as a place of sanctuary and reflection. In a beautiful sermon/monologue that forms the core of the play's philosophy, the monsignor riffs on Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel depiction of God and man. God's outstretched arm strains to reach man's relaxed, careless hand, he says. Miracles, it seems, are the times when man himself finally decides to reach out.

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Dave Amber

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