Morse takes on sexuality, abuse of power in one-act play

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BATH — Morse High School’s entry in the Regional One-Act Play competition next weekend could raise some eyebrows, according to the play’s director.

“This is absolutely the most controversial play we’ve ever produced,” said Kevin O’Leary, Morse’s One-Act director.

The play, “In Decent Man,” is the brainchild of Morse senior Max Ater, the first student of O’Leary’s to be in the One-Acts every year of high school. Not only did Ater write the play and its music, but he is also starring in it.

“I’ve broken my hard and fast rule, which is I never allow a student to act in his or her own play,” O’Leary said, who is also an English teacher. “But because this is Max’s fourth year, and he’s been incredibly loyal to our program, I broke that rule and I allowed him to star in his own play.”

The story takes place in a small midwestern town during the 1930s Dust Bowl period. A church congregation is struggling because they haven’t seen rain in years, “and they are literally down on their luck and they go to church to get the only solace they can, from Father Walker,” O’ Leary said.

Walker, played by Ater, initally comes across as a pillar of the community, the backbone of spirituality, the go-to guy for his desperate flock, O’Leary said. But it’s not long into the play that Walker is revealed not to be the man he purports to be, but rather a manipulator and opportunist.

Mary (senior Ruth Shumaker), the wife of a local farmer, starts out believing in Walker but in the end must summon the courage to bring him down, O’Leary said. In Mary’s case, “it takes a weak person to summon strength to overcome the Goliaths in the world.”

Walker, who takes advantage of his followers in a variety of ways, is in love with Mary’s husband, Matthew (senior Dalton Cahill), and “there is an attempt at male-to-male intimacy in this play.”

Walker assumes his power gives him permission to advance himself upon anybody, and he pits community members against each other to mask his own indiscretions, O’Leary said.

“While Matthew is not the first member of the congregation that Father Walker has advanced upon or used his powers for ill reasons, it’s the first time we see where he sexually advances upon Matthew,” he explained.

O’Leary noted that “we’re taking a big risk” in showing the play, and that the Maine Principal’s Association suggests that the One-Acts should be family plays. Still, he added, “I support my playwrights. And I put out plays that I feel support young writers.”

He will call for play elements to be altered if they go too far, he said, “but I don’t think sexuality is over the top, I don’t think it’s out of bounds, I don’t think writing a play about the abuse of power is out of bounds, just because it happens to be in a house of worship.”

Morse is among 85 schools participating in the annual statewide competition, O’Leary said. And the school is among nine sites hosting the regional level of the event on Friday, March 11, and Saturday, March 12. Winners advance to the state and New England levels.

“In Decent Man” will be shown at 9 p.m. Friday, preceded by Wiscasset at 6 p.m., Portland at 7 p.m. and Mt. View at 8 p.m. Plays by Windham, Boothbay Region, Gorham, South Portland and Freeport follow on Saturday.

This is O’Leary’s 10th One-Act, all of which have consisted of student-written plays. Morse hosted the first regional One-Act festival in 1932.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.