Simon is thirteen years old — that confusing in-between time when most of as are struggling to find our own identities and our imaginations are at their most fluid, expansive and fantastical — and he’s a religious obsessive. He isn’t filled with love or wonder, he has no sense of transcendence, and ecstatic visions elude him — though he will eventually endure a visitation in the parking lot of the local Walmart. Simon wants to be chosen by God as a prophet and, in search of martyrdom, he goads the school football players into beating him up and tries to give away his clothes and toys — not because he cares about people who have little or nothing, but to bolster his cause.
Faith is a world premiere, a new play by up-and-coming playwright James McLindon, chosen for full production after Local Theater Company’s annual lab in 2014. It’s hard to tell whether McLindon intended Simon to be appealing in his struggles, or whether you’re supposed to find him narrow, narcissistic and unlikable — which, I must admit, I mostly did. The other characters are Simon’s mother, Theresa — a lapsed Catholic who hopes her son will take the same path — and Owen, his good-hearted doofus of a school counselor, with whom Theresa once had an affair. Then there’s that celestial visitor, the Harbinger, a figure like an angel, but not (as she explains rather testily) an actual angel. She has come to tell Simon something, but it’s not what he expects or wants to hear. And she has her own burdens: She has manifested to various people around the world before, but her message was always badly received; she’s hoping Simon’s youth will make him more teachable. Mare Trevathan is one of the few actors anywhere capable of the mix of warmth and rage, majesty and querulousness needed for the Harbinger, and her performance transfixes.
McLindon is trying to chase down something complicated, difficult and murky here, and his Harbinger is the most interesting thing about the play. Is she virtuous or evil, intensely powerful or completely ineffectual? Is she one of those semi-comic angels who have disagreements with the Supreme Maker — if she even believes the Maker exists? Does she think that a world without God, where humankind is free to make independent decisions, is saner and more kindly than a God-fearing world? For whom does she speak if not God? These are fascinating questions, and you sense a keen playwriting intelligence asking them.
But there are problems with the script. The squabbling, affectionate antagonism between Theresa and Simon in the first scene is endearing, but soon after that, the role of Theresa becomes predictable, and while actor Meridith C. Grundei plays her with charm and vivacity, Simon’s mother never feels grounded. Owen, portrayed by an amiable Leigh Miller, doesn’t seem quite real, either. Theresa worries obsessively about Simon, who has actually tried to cut stigmata into the palms of his hands, and tries to get him help — but she remains obdurately closed to all questions of religion, while Owen is consistently as laid-back and unconcerned as she is frantic. Both characters need fleshing out.
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The overall tone is periodically problematic, too. Why does Owen keep dropping the names of chain restaurants like the Olive Garden? Is the implication that corporatization is contributing to the de-souling of America...or that he’s a chump? And there are comic moments that don’t work, like all the pratfalls that Simon, Owen and Theresa take in the disorienting presence of the Harbinger.
Most of the pre-show publicity for Faith focused on the fact that Em Grosland, who plays Simon, is transgender. Which means that despite all the lectures from academics about gender being a social construct and not open to discussion in conventional terms, the question has to arise: Is Grosland convincing as a young boy? I don’t think Simon is entirely convincing as written, but, yes, Grosland is. This portrayal is energetic, ambiguous, passionate. Sometimes Grosland’s Simon comes across as genderless and sometimes ageless, or at least more mature and in control than his elders — all of which works.
Under director Pesha Rudnick, the tech — Kathryn Kawecki’s set, Shannon McKinney’s lighting, Hunter Ewen’s sound — and special effects are dazzling, and it’s great to see Local tackling this challenging, thought-provoking work in progress.