Thomas Merton, it's fair to say, was an individual worth writing a play about. An American monk who lived a hermetic life out in the woods, he nevertheless kept up a mighty correspondence with many of the greatest writers of his age during a literary career that ran from 1941 to 1968. His 1948 autobiography The Seven Story Mountain influenced such diverse folk as Boris Pasternak, James Baldwin, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and William Carlos Williams, and his blend of social consciousness and social abstinence made him a fascinating personality. Unfortunately, the real meaning of Merton's life never seems to surface in Trista Conger's new play A Picnic in the Garden, now in its world premiere at the Changing Scene.
Part of the problem is the show's all-amateur cast--lots of undisciplined, if heartfelt, performances. But the greatest difficulties lie in the play itself. Conger has chosen to make this a "dream" play--probably because Merton dealt with a great many ambiguities in his writing. But only a genius like August Strindberg could really get away with the convolutions of such a surrealistic form.
The last thing we need is an enigmatic treatment of a complicated man like Merton. Illumination would be a lot more interesting: Who was the man, what did he propose as a vision, and what is that vision's significance? Despite a valiant effort on Conger's part to indicate the scope of the monk's life, the viewer learns very little about Merton. I felt as though I knew less about the man when I came out of the theater than I knew when I went in.
For a Trappist, though, Merton sure likes to talk. Conger has him speak directly to the audience about his relation to nature and his passion to know God and what it means to live in Him. In perhaps the most poetic and engaging monologue of the play, Brother Louis (Merton's Trappist name) speaks of his pursuit of reason, order and meaning, his relationship to the crucified Christ, and the question that haunts us all: Why are we here?
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But we never get an intelligible answer to that vast question. After two hours of Merton's interaction with friends and devotees, of a few indications of his social consciousness and his private obsessions, of his childhood and rebellious adolescence, the only message we get is: God expects us to be ourselves. Sorry, but that doesn't cut it on either a religious or a sociopolitical level.
George Berlin has a luminous, intelligent beauty that suits the role of Merton very well. But though he shows great promise and stage presence, he doesn't yet have the training in body language or voice to carry the role dramatically. Charles Kocher as Merton's publisher and friend, Bill, has a wonderful singing voice and plenty of talent. But he's hampered by an ambiguous role that never quite gels. Carol Anne Lopez as Merton's friend Carrie is uneasy on stage and unconvincing as a force in Merton's life, while Becky Peters-Combs, double-cast as both a nun and Merton's old love interest, is pleasant but clearly a novice.
Jeffrey Pavek's direction seems aimless at times--the stage movement is messy, the actors frequently unfocused and the motivations unclear. Props are as often in the way as they are pertinent to the action, and a large dog named Jesus simply steals attention or embarrasses the actors each time he enters.
The whole show could benefit from a careful rewrite and lots of rehearsal time--right now, it feels like a workshop production. Yet despite all the play's problems, Conger does indirectly succeed in stimulating interest in Merton and his writing. I went right home and dived into The Courage for Truth, a collection of Merton's letters to writers that has been sitting on my bookshelf for six months, and found it intermittently engrossing. Maybe the best way to understand Merton is through his own work.