A world premiere, a tribute and a deeply affecting evening of theater: This is the Denver Center Theatre Company's production of Benediction, Eric Schmiedl's dramatization of Kent Haruf's novel of the same name. A much-loved and lauded Colorado author, Haruf saw two of his earlier novels turned into plays by Schmiedl and artistic director Kent Thompson, and he was present for the DCTC's New Play Summit staged reading of Benediction last February. But the 71-year-old Haruf died this past fall, a fact that adds profound resonance to a narrative that circles the dying of an old man, Dad Lewis.
Dad had run the hardware store in Haruf's fictional plains town of Holt, also the setting for the previous Haruf novels, Plainsong and Eventide. Holt, always central, moves to its own rhythm. The stories that take place here are realistic on one level, particularly in the strong, clean, unornamented exploration of the townsfolks' lives. But they also feel out of this world and out of time -- homespun, but touching on the mystical. Benediction is set in the early years of this century, with the Vietnam War casting a forward shadow onto current wars, yet no one in Holt appears to have a cell phone. In fact, when a phone of any kind appears -- a little girl calls her grandmother from a store -- it registers as a major event. And when the same child disappears, no one leaps into a car to search the area; a couple of people just set out on foot. Most of the costumes in this production are timeless, too, including loose, pretty dresses that wouldn't have looked out of place in the 1920s. When someone mentions the Internet, we remember with a slight start what century we're in.
But Holt represents a world of its own, and the truths explored here are grounded and universal. Dad's dying is troubled by memories of an act of cruelty he committed that caused his teenage son to flee their home and filled the life of his wife, Mary, with grief and loss. Rough-hewn and inarticulate, he expresses his yearning for expiation in small, practical gestures. Daughter Lorraine considers throwing off an unrewarding relationship in Denver and staying to run the hardware store. Neighbor Berta Mae has taken in Alice, the eight-year-old child of her own daughter, who died of breast cancer. Alene, a retired schoolteacher, comes home to live with her mother, Willa. And these women love and cosset little Alice, each for her own specific reason. In a separate, intertwining plot strand, Reverend Rob Lyle arrives with his emotionally estranged wife and troubled teenage son, having been reassigned from Denver for defending a homosexual colleague. During his first sermon, he upsets the townspeople with a question about how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can be squared with Jesus's instruction to love one's enemy: "What if Jesus wasn't kidding?" he asks.
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Thompson's direction is tender, but without a lick of sentimentality. There has been one significant change in his approach: Where the sets, music and lighting for the earlier Haruf plays were purely beautiful -- the plains, the great sweep of sky and the ever-changing light that made you feel you were watching a rich, moving tapestry -- the tech here is more spartan, and in the confined playing area of the Space Theatre, the characters are so close you can almost touch them. The result is a sense of intimacy and immediacy. All of the ensemble work is strong. As always, Mike Hartman exudes authenticity, and his fine performance as Dad is matched by Joyce Cohen's caring, understated Mary. Billie McBride charms as wise, life-affirming Willa, and you can't help but be touched by Leslie O'Carroll's tired, loving Berta Mae. Zoe Delaney Stahlhut is a nicely reserved Alice, and Ed F. Martin is moving as the Reverend Lyle, deprived of his official role but still ministering to those in pain.
A couple of pivotal scenes will stay with me for a long time -- one joyful and celebratory, the other horrifying, and both exquisitely staged. The first involves bright, arcing sprays of water, the second a boy alone in semi-darkness with a chair, a box and a rope. It's in this semi-darkness that we come to understand that while some relationships are irretrievably broken, others can still find healing.
Benediction Presented by Denver Center Theatre Company through March 1, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org.