For the first twenty minutes, I think I'm feeling alienated from what's going on because a priest appeared on stage before the play and started to lead us in prayer -- a real priest, not an actor in a clerical collar. There's something disorienting about living in a culture so religion-saturated that complete strangers assume your belief in God and feel they have the right to lead you in prayer. An Almost Holy Picture may be a monologue about a man's spiritual crisis, his struggle to believe in the face of life's calamities, but I've come here to experience a work of art, not an act of enforced piety.
Still, actor John Hutton is beginning to win me over. He takes the stage with such quiet authority. He has created a very specific character: a slightly fussy man whose speech is shapely, rounded and somewhat formal, and who tends to hint at, rather than pour out, his emotions -- though those emotions sometimes threaten to overwhelm him nonetheless.
Half an hour into the proceedings, I realize the prayer wasn't the problem. And it's certainly not Hutton. This is purely and simply a terrible script. It maunders along endlessly, self-consciously high-minded, desperate to be meaningful.
Samuel Gentle has left his job as the pastor of a New Mexico church because of a terrible accident in which a bus overturned into a ravine and nine children drowned. Now he works on the grounds of an Episcopal church. You really can't forget the Church of the Holy Comforter for a second, because the set is dominated by a couple of stained-glass windows that periodically glow and then subside. There's a patch of real earth, too. Everything is symbolic. Earth and water. Hair. (The bus overturned because a young girl whose hair was on fire was running toward the ravine to extinguish the flame. Don't think about that for too long.) Then there are dried beans, garlic, flowers, salsa verde and sky. Need I say that the script also contains frequent references to Native American beliefs and traditions?
After three miscarriages, Gentle's wife, Miriam, gives birth. Baby Ariel is beautiful, still covered with pale, downy lanugo hair. Unfortunately, she turns out to have inherited a rare disease in which the body hair never drops away. She will spend her life as furry as an animal, taunted by kids at school. Her father, anguished, strains to protect her. Ultimately, his over-protectiveness will hurt her and alienate him from his family.
There are a couple of moving scenes in An Almost Holy Picture. After her miscarriages, Miriam consults a doctor. She comes out of the examining room walking unevenly on one high-heeled shoe and remarks wryly that she's been told she's a "habitual aborter." The character suddenly feels vulnerable and real. Then there's Gentle singing "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" to the newborn Ariel.
Later, Gentle demonstrates how he fills a tub with water and shaves his daughter twice a week. (This scene is only slightly marred by his unlikely explanation that Miriam can't do this because her arms are too short.) John Hutton's hands tremble as he spreads out the white towel, and the quiet ritual of blood, razor and water speaks to us. Momentarily, we can forget that white cloths, too, feature in the playwright's heavy-handed array of symbols.
(Along with tuxes, desserts, cigarettes and coffee, shadow and light.)
It's just hard to understand what all the emotional palaver is about. Ariel is healthy, bright and curious. Her ailment will neither maim nor kill her. Though her schoolfriends' mockery doubtless troubles her, she seems on the whole unfazed by her affliction.
Ariel is a star and a puppy and a lamb and probably a Christ figure, too. What she isn't is a recognizable little girl. Nor does her mother, the anthropologist, seem like a real woman. Gentle doesn't tell us about his family; he details his feelings about them. Each of the play's minor characters is equally vague; each receives one or two defining quirks -- symbolic, naturally. Inez practices her religion by hurling abuse into the heavens. Martinez, the gas station owner, has a bald head, which seems to mean he can hear snowflakes landing. Martinez's son, Angel (I tell you, it never stops) has some unexplained psychological defect and is referred to as the Wild Child, though Gentle never really explains what's so wild about him.
There's not the remotest hint of irony in An Almost Holy Picture, no humor except the wistful kind that wants to make a point. Ariel is interested in blue whales. She tells her father that their hearts are the size of a Volkswagen and their penises absolutely huge. For a second we see a genuine excited child talking. Later, Ariel writes to Gentle that a hummingbird's heart is, proportionately, the largest in creation. Just as we're digesting this rather pleasant idea, Gentle spells out its significance. He's glad his daughter is interested in hearts, he says.
Not only does playwright Heather McDonald feel the need to underline all her insights, but she repeats them over and over again. She also repeats for poetic effect. "Everything shimmered," Gentle says several times, like a refrain. And: "I offer up my day. I offer up my day." An ethereal, rapturous tone is sustained throughout, but it's not grounded in anything. Tennessee Williams, to whose The Glass Menagerie this play pays tribute, also inhabited otherworldly planes, but he earned them with plot and action, sexuality, human passion. By contrast, no matter how often Gentle says he loves Ariel, you don't believe it. What he loves is his love for her.
An Almost Holy Picture isn't a play or even a convincing monologue. It's a bit like one of those charming NPR essays in which a small-town teacher describes a precocious child, a pleasant landscape, a small incident that illumined a larger truth for him. Such insights have an eight-minute appeal, but they pall at two hours.
Faced with a universe that's forever shimmering, and forced to deliver lines like "It's as if we suffered to repair something faulty in our natures" and "I put my garden to bed and love calls me," the stalwart Hutton falters. He loses his emotional clarity. An actor alone on a stage can electrify an audience, as Chris Tabb and Ann Rickhoff sequentially demonstrated in Everyman Theatre's Talking Heads last spring. But Rickhoff and Tabb were supported by the depth and intelligence of Alan Bennett's writing. I'd guess that An Almost Holy Picture is unactable.
In the wake of September 11, a lot of Americans talked about a crisis of faith and the difficulties of believing in a God who allowed such tragedies to happen. (You have to wonder how long these people had been sleeping: Even if Stalin, the Holocaust and Hiroshima occurred before their time, surely they had heard of Rwanda?) Still, the reality of suffering and the possibilities of redemption remain the most profound puzzles we face. Explored with honesty and feeling, they should speak to even the most irreverent among us.
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