KPBS AIRDATE: September 27, 1995
A new addition to the theater scene is always a cause for celebration. Right now, we can really whoop it up, to trumpet three high-profile world premieres and a tiny, fledgling theater company.
On the large scale, there’s Stephen Sondheim’s comedy thriller, “The Doctor is Out,” which I discussed last week. And Randy Newman’s musical comedy, “Faust,” which I’ll cover next week.
A world premiere that’s both big and small in scope is Heather McDonald’s “An Almost Holy Picture,” at the La Jolla Playhouse. A beautiful production of a beautiful play. It’s big because it’s a La Jolla Playhouse production. It’s small because it has only one character, but the performance is huge. David Morse, better known as “Boomer” Morrison on TV’s “St. Elsewhere,” brings a rich, bemused grace to the role of Samuel Gentle, a man who has spent his life in pursuit of God.
Twenty-one years ago, he abandoned the priesthood and came to New England , to serve as a church groundskeeper. He is trying to sort it all out, the senseless death of children, the inexplicable miscarriages, the birth of a daughter with lenugo, a rare genetic disorder that covers her in a light, golden down which gives her a kind of halo, but demands a total-body shave twice a week.
He has come to believe in the Hopi “theory of fours.” The play is divided into four parts; Gentle looks for his four transformative life experiences. The design team underscores the mixed metaphors of faith: melding Gregorian chant with Native American flute, blending Christian iconography with Indian ceremony, punctuating a brilliant New Mexican sunrise with the clanging proclamation of matins. As a child of the universe and the father of an uncommon child, Gentle is trying to learn, rather than teach, yet we come away inspired and stirred.
MacDonald’s writing is often breathtaking, and director Michael Mayer has wisely chosen to keep the action simple, allowing the lyrical words to create the evocative images. Only one small nitpick: After two hours of crystalline storytelling, the exposition gets murky at the end. Where have mother and daughter gone, and why? It’s a tiny point in an otherwise spellbinding evening, one that moves you with honest emotion, not forced sentimentality. And that’s more rare than… lenugo.
Also rare these days is having the courage to start up a theater company, and on top of that, take on a real dramatic challenge. Local actor/director Marjorie Treger, trained at UCSD and the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco , has invested the money, time and energy of family and friends, to create Second Star Productions. Their first venture is “The Lark,” Christopher Fry’s 1955 translation of “L’Alouette” by Jean Anouilh, a terrific telling of the story of Joan of Arc.
Alternating between the dramatic and the presentational, the play confronts the contrast between wealth and poverty, youthful purity and adult compromise. The bare-bones production is as varied as its players; focused and centered at times, over the top at others. There is a wide rift separating the four Equity actors from the other five. Mylinda Hull is luminous in the role of Joan. She’s worth watching, and so is the progress of this valiant, plucky startup company.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1995 Patté Productions Inc.