There’s a moment early on in For the Loyal that made me fear I was about to watch a promising play go off the rails. The show opens on such a strong note, immersing the audience in situational tension right from the start, that my heart sank when a sudden plot twist appeared likely to release that tension and push the narrative in a more conventional direction. Thankfully, my gut reaction couldn’t have been much further off.

Heavily inspired by the case of Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State assistant football coach convicted in 2011 of sexually molesting multiple underage boys within his own youth organization, For the Loyal is in dangerous territory even before it begins. Granted, neither child molestation nor “ripped from the headlines” treatments are uncommon ground for theater productions, but both are mighty difficult to pull off without becoming sensationalistic or exploitative. Even handled well, this material runs the risk of becoming “that Jerry Sandusky play” instead of an enduring work of art that holds up on its own terms.

New avenues

While For the Loyal never shies away from its difficult subject matter, Lee Blessing’s script manages to avoid all of those pitfalls by taking narrative and structural risks that allow the story to go down avenues that might otherwise go unexplored - some of them even more unsettling than the facts of the original case. The basics of For the Loyal hew closely to the Penn State tragedy: A young assistant coach in a high profile college football program reveals to his pregnant wife that he’s just witnessed what appeared to be a sexual encounter between the team’s offensive coordinator and an adolescent boy. When the head coach learns about the incident, it becomes evident that any attempt at seeking justice will take a backseat to protecting the all-important program.

All of these early goings are handled exceptionally well, with tension and uncertainty crackling in the air, but it’s not until the play diverges from the specifics of the Sandusky case that it reveals itself as something really special. After the situation has been established, Blessing begins to fracture the story into a series of alternate timelines, each one exploring a different possible handling of the scenario and the eventual repercussions and ramifications for each of the characters. Nearly every possible reaction is considered, from reporting the incident to the police to exacting vigilante justice to going along with the cover-up, and each one spirals off into a new tangle of quandaries both moral and practical.

At times it feels as if Blessing’s script was written as a point-by-point refutation of every self-righteous op-ed piece that claimed to have a solution to the Penn State nightmare, but the play never falls into the Aaron Sorkin-trap of using the art as a transparent vessel for the author’s own agenda. It’s probably as close to neutral as a play about child molestation could be, and in this instance neutrality is a necessary gateway to nuance.

The right thing

Another key decision that pays off for For the Loyal is filtering the story largely through the character who initially would seem to have the least stake in its outcome, Anna Sundberg’s horrified wife. Her discovery of the coach’s crime is the catalyst for everything that follows, and she serves as a remarkably effective audience surrogate as she strives to do the right thing only to find that every theoretical “right thing” comes bundled with its own unexpected consequences.

Peel away the surface and it becomes clear that easy villains like Mark Rosenwinkel’s fiercely devoted head coach and and Sam Bardwell’s flop-sweaty assistant are motivated as much by protecting their loved ones from scandal as they are by pure self-preservation. An obvious victim like Michael Fell’s molested teenager emerges as a jaded, savvy realist with a surprising understanding of his own situation. Most unsettling of all, Garry Geiken’s unrepentant predator is so gormless, affable and charismatic that he comes close to inspiring something like sympathy. In a play marked by uniformly strong, multi-faceted acting, Geiken stands out with a stomach-churning tightrope act of a performance that mines every possible ounce of likability from a fundamentally pitiful and loathsome character.

Of course it’s impossible to tell if a work of art built around recent events will stand the test of time. One era’s bracing exploration of morality can quickly become the next era’s quaint snapshot of bygone notions. It’s been only four years since Jerry Sandusky was sentenced to prison, an exceedingly narrow lens through which to view any kind of history. Still, For the Loyal’s themes are sadly universal and timeless, and its execution is adept enough that it could very easily have a long life on stage. This isn’t a play about easy answers, or even difficult ones. It’s a harrowing expedition down the roads not taken, with the courage to admit that every one of those roads may lead to ruin.