He's written about pornstars and unplanned pregnancy, but now acclaimed playwright William Nedved is taking on the Catholic Church. With "Body & Blood," the long-time Chicagoan, one-time altar boy and veteran TV/film/theater writer digs into the story of Daniel, a Lincoln Park antihero whose decision to join the priesthood unleashes havoc.
Nedved's day job involves writing for TV ("Ugly Betty") and film ("All Tomorrow's Parties"). But his labor of love is playwriting, and his artistic home is in Jefferson Park's Gift Theatre. "Body & Blood" opens June 15, in the black box space he founded with Michael Patrick Thornton in 1997. Those expecting an evisceration of the Catholic Church will be disappointed. This isn't that play, Nedved said.
"I liked being an altar boy. I aged gracefully out of that. I don't have any horror stories about the church, only positive ones," Nedved said. "There's certainly a lot wrong with it but writing an attack? That wouldn't be honest to my experience."
The drama is rooted in anecdote, not autobiography, he added.
"I was taking an acting class when I heard about this guy who had dropped to enter Seminary," Nedved recalled. "I found that unfathomable, even though I still have a lot of reverence for the church. I wanted to try and reconcile those two things - unfathomability and reverence. How can anybody, even if you have incredibly strong faith, make that decision?"
In "Body & Blood," Daniel's decision doesn't go down well with anybody - his Jewish girlfriend, his family, and even the priest who has been mentoring the would-be Father zealously oppose the idea. Irreverence plays a part too. While Daniel's gobsmacked girlfriend attempts to wrap her mind around a career choice that endows you with the power to turn wine into blood, Daniel finds that signs from God just aren't what they used to be.
"Here I thought I was on the road to Damascus," the would-be priest says referencing the wildly dramatic New Testament tale of a sinner transformed into an apostle after bumping into Jesus on a dusty Mesopotamian thoroughfare. "But I'm still just Dan."
Nedved's gift lies in making Daniel's struggle both intensely specific and instantly recognizable. It doesn't matter if you've wrestled with whether to take Holy Orders. The dialogue hits a universal nerve. When Daniel ponders his life ("I'm kind of in that Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday where you're just waiting for something to happen. Have I found my way or do I just have to get out of my own way?"), he's asking questions that have dogged people since there were people.
Nedved has had no such uncertainty in his writing career. His path was set after a high school exchange program that took him to Brazil for his junior year in high school. His South American adventures - ditching his host school to teach ESL out in the countryside, coming out, embarking on his first love affair - which partially inspired the acclaimed "Fact and Fiction," wherein Nedved told the story of that first boyfriend - a man who went on to become a major South American pornstar. The Gift's production of "Northwest Highway," about Chicago siblings dealing with the death of a parent, was a breakout hit for the theater in 2011.
With "Body & Blood," Nedved's exploration of deeply flawed Chicagoans navigating equally complicated situations continues. "I think we all have doubts about Daniel at the end," he said. "But doubt's a prevalent theme with any religion. Belief isn't easy. Not for the characters in the play and not, I think, for most of us."
William Nedved's "Body & Blood" runs June 15 through Aug. 9 at the Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee. Tickets are $25 - $35. For more information, go to www.thegifttheatre.org or call 773-283-7071.
Body & Blood rehearsal photos by Claire Demos, featuring ensemble member Cyd Blakewell (top, left) and guest artist Nicholas Harazin.