Trembling in the grasp of a recession, we have been asked to reflect—most notably by President Obama—on the last time in our country’s history when blunders on the high level caused a state of economic emergency. The difference between the Great Depression and what many have coined “The Great Recession” is one of only three letters. But although Jacqueline Goldfinger’s The Oath is set in a Southern town during the Depression, she has asked us to not focus on this weighty parallel. “Whether the current economic downturn is the new Great Depression or not doesn’t interest me,” she states in her playwright’s note. "What really interests me is how pressure forces people to reveal their true selves," she continues.
It’s perhaps due to her deliberate subtlety that The Oath’s symbolism is so affecting. The story is laden with religious parallels, questions of female identity and themes of secrecy and familial duty, but the presence of a nationwide crisis that hovers over its cast of characters is what allows us to relate to them right off the bat—even before Goldfinger dismantles, in a startlingly effective manner, the initial archetypes that these characters represent.
The Oath’s poster, which depicts imposing church windows and the tagline, "a southern gothic tale," may easily evoke supernatural and creepy associations in a modern theatergoer, but onstage the work plays out as a straightforward family narrative. Set in a small-town parish in Florida, the play tells the story of a preacher (Anthony Crep) who becomes closely involved in the lives of the town's former minister’s three daughters (Louise Flory, Dianna Martin and Sarah Chaney). Their father, never seen onstage, has been confined to his bedroom for over a year with a condition that isn’t initially revealed, while the three unmarried women attempt to both run the parish and deal with the pervasive poverty and consequent desperation that’s currently affecting their community.
All three start off as stereotypes—while Deck (Martin) tends to the coffee pot and the laundry basket, Cebe (Flory) sneaks around town with different men in a rebellious tirade. Meanwhile, Ophelia (Chaney) casts an imposing, stiff shadow over the desk at which her father used to sit, charging community members money for blessings and counting her winnings. When Joshua arrives, he proceeds to push for the truth behind the reverend’s yearlong absence, and finds himself head-on with the sisters’ desire to conceal their individual—and collective—secrets.
That these archetypes give way to remarkable layers of moral ambiguity as the story progresses speaks to both the quality of the writing and the extraordinary devotion of the performers. Even when Cebe bursts into a sarcastic cackle, there’s a manic, rageful element to her seeming lack of rules that awakens our curiosity. Meanwhile, Deck appears so deliberately resigned to her role as an old maid that her momentary outburst early in the play hints at a deep-seeded trauma. While Ophelia’s turn from a stern, money-grubbing matriarch into a vulnerable, lonely soul feels hurried, she provides a steadier counterpoint to her more troubled sisters.
Like The Roundtable Ensemble’s recent tale of military wives, Silent Heroes, the world of The Oath is one ruled by invisible men. From the never-seen former preacher to the president of the church board and, most notably, Christ himself, offstage male figures control the choices of each of the play’s women. In a cleverly ironic setup, Joshua is nevertheless merely a visitor in a world of women. As the sole male cast member, Anthony Crep brings just the right element of earnestness and sympathy into Joshua. In his attempt to restore a community and a family, his loyal intentions sometimes give way to desperation.
More than many mainstream works, The Oath achieves a near-perfect equilibrium between the quality of its writing and its performances. Goldfinger has balanced her story nicely, enabling dynamic, revealing interactions between different pairs of characters, and balancing them out with several powerful monologues. Under the guidance of director Cristina Alicea, each of the actors seems to have understood the depth of the exceptional material, and showcases these characters to their full, sometimes frightening potential.