A godforsaken production of A Prayer for Owen Meany

A Prayer for Owen Meany begins with John Wheelwright alone on stage remembering Owen Meany, the friend whose life and actions caused him to become a Christian. As a child, John lived with his charming, flirtatious mother, Tabitha, and his grandmother; all he knew of his father was that Tabitha had met him on a train. At school, John became friends with Owen Meany, a small boy with a high and grating voice who eventually became the unintentional cause of Tabitha's death; it was not his fault, Meany explained, because at that moment, he was simply God's instrument. God had further plans for Meany, too, plans that included saving a group of Vietnamese children — which may or may not be the reason he eventually enlisted in the army.

I haven't read John Irving's novel on which this adaptation by Simon Bent is based. Maybe on the page, the links between one thing and another are fleshed out and it all makes sense. But it doesn't on the stage. The play teems with signs and symbols: the red angel that Meany thinks he sees in Tabitha's room; his gnomic repeated comment that "I won't let you die, John"; the young Meany being cast simultaneously as the baby Jesus in a nativity pageant and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in A Christmas Carol; his cantankerous father's insistence that Meany's was a virgin birth; Meany's foreknowledge of the date of his death. There's an irritating and apparently self-conscious quirkiness to the plot. Meany may be a kind of secular saint and is most certainly a Christ figure (we see him in a crucifixion pose twice), but lest we find this corny or sentimental, he's also cranky and mischievous, he hates Catholics, and he shares a love of Liberace with John's grandmother.

Michael Wartella (left) and David Ivers in A Prayer for Owen Meany.
Michael Wartella (left) and David Ivers in A Prayer for Owen Meany.

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Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through April 25, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.

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Almost all of the characters are ciphers. Tabitha is beautiful, wears red and likes to sing. John seems to have no life of his own, and spends his time trying to puzzle out Meany. Meany's parents are stereotypically Irish — she twisted and dour, he bristling and loud. There are two comic clergymen, one of whom turns out to be less comic than the other. And there's Lydia, a pissed-off, legless woman confined to a wheelchair. She's funny because people who say unfocused, angry things are funny — and also, she's played by Kathleen M. Brady, an actress so gifted she can make us laugh or cry at will. But who is this woman? What's the point of her leglessness, and why does she disappear halfway through the play? For that matter, why, after Tabitha's burial, does the police chief say he's going off to eat? "Biscuits and gravy, Dan. Death makes me hungry." Is this a life-goes-on moment or an indication of his thickness and insensitivity? If the latter, why should we care, since we've never seen the man before and never will again? The violence that brings on the climax is created by the disaffected son of a "trailer trash" family — the daughter conspicuously pregnant, the mother furiously anti-war. Why does this war-hungry man, who's anxious to collect a necklace of "gook" ears, target Owen Meany? I'm not sure. Maybe he's grown as tired of the squeaky voice as I did.

David Ivers and Michael Wartella do everything possible with the roles of John and Owen Meany, respectively, and Bruce K. Sevy's production is full of cameos by people we often see on the Denver Center stage, some of them quite marvelous talents. But none of them gets deeply into character, because there are no real characters to get into. In fact, the only involving aspects of this production are William Bloodgood's elegantly minimal set and Ann G. Wrightson's evocative lighting.

It took a while before I realized why the play left me so cold. This is a story about God and faith that's devoid of human warmth and relationship — and how can you talk about God without talking about love? It's a shock when Tabitha kneels for a few seconds at John's feet and says she loves him, as nothing in her behavior so far has indicated this. You know John loves Meany because he keeps saying so, but when the young men are together, you don't feel any currents of affection; they just spar about religion. As for those Vietnamese children, it isn't out of love that Meany saves them: You can't love purely symbolic, cardboard figures, as this production so aptly shows.

 
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