There are two Kevin Bacons: a rocker or rebel with his hair up, and a yuppie or striver with his hair down. I prefer the former, but in Heather McDonald’s An Almost Holy Picture we get the latter. This is what we used to call a religioso piece; it is about God, angels, miracles, and wrestling with one’s faith, and unless you follow that particular sport, hard to swallow. Catholics and Jews are best at it; McDonald is Episcopal.
We have a monodrama: the thoughts and recollections of Samuel Gentle, former Episcopal priest, now cathedral groundskeeper (a likely story!), husband to Miriam, a professor of anthropology, and father of Ariel, a little girl afflicted with the inherited and incurable disease lanugo, where fine, silky hair covers face and body.
Shit happens: In a school-bus accident on the southwestern mesas, nine children perish. In a photography show on Cape Cod, an odd teenager, Angel Martinez, exhibits his pictures of Ariel, one a nude. Samuel tears them down. McDonald’s other issues range from the mystic beliefs of Hopi Indians to gardening and the religious significance of hair, from a New Mexican Hispanic woman’s comic quarrel with God to Ariel’s notion that Angel, in a tuxedo and smoking a cigarette, really is an angel.
After all this, it should come as no surprise that part of An Almost Holy Picture is written in verse, though in McDonald’s egalitarian way, the prose is indistinguishable from the poetry. Which, would you say, is this: “The sea is calm. The tide is full. The moon lies fair upon the straits … The waves draw back and roar the eternal note of sadness in”? Is this a parody of “Dover Beach” or what?
No mystery about Bacon’s attraction to this material. He gets to bestride a giant stage by himself, change flashy emotions like shirts (only faster), and speak in the voices of male and female Hispanics, an old bishop, a small daughter, an eccentric wife (especially when she is playing Amanda Wingfield at the Truro summer theater), and he acts it all better than it deserves. But there are mysteries for the audience to grapple with. How come Miriam’s arms are too short for bathing Ariel? Is that like wrestling with God? Why, when Ariel is old enough to shave herself, does the blood from her nicks fill her basin with what looks like Kool-Aid? And why does Samuel have to empty it in our faces? Why would Kevin Adams, the usually able lighting designer – no doubt with the collusion of Michael Mayer, the director – project Rothko-like images on the backdrop of Mark Wendland’s confusing set? And why don’t the kids who jeer at Ariel ever call her Hariel?
Verse drama by women seems to be in: The Manhattan Theatre Club, taking temporary leave of its senses, foists on us Further Than the Furthest Thing, by Britain’s Zinnie Harris. The “thing” in question is the tiny British Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha, equidistant from South Africa and South America, and reachable by one ship every six months. Its sparse population comprises the seven families descended from seven shipwrecked sailors, but it is unclear whether inbreeding or bad writing makes the play’s five characters stupid, ridiculous, or both. Tristan was hit by volcanic eruption in 1961; its population was evacuated to Southampton, where, however, it could not take root.
So much is history. But, as Harris says in a note, she promptly departed from it, although “the real version is richer still.” Her own poorer version derives loosely from tales told by her grandpa, who for some years was the Anglican priest on Tristan (here we go again!). Act One takes place on Tristan, Act Two in England, called Hengland by the Tristanians, even as the penguin’s eggs they ate were called pennyguin’s heggs. The language is mostly the quaint island patois – not the stuff of verse drama. But Harris also supplies illegitimate birth, wretched marriage, infanticide, suicide via factory explosion, and the sacrifice by lottery of seventeen islanders when the food supply is too short – which Harris must think is the stuff of verse drama.
It’s hard to tell whether the noxious fumes come from the volcano, the writing, or the acting. In the case of Dan Futterman, I’m pretty sure it’s the second; in the case of Jenny Sterlin, I hope the third. The production values are, as usual at MTC, good – though Loy Arcenas’s England is more arid than Tristan’s lava rock, perhaps intentionally. Neil Pepe had the unenviable job of directing this almost unholy mess.
No longer able to turn out plays about apartheid, Athol Fugard is reduced to memories of apartheid, though by now even poultry farming or well digging would provide welcome relief. Of course there is always a sort of plot, which in Sorrows and Rejoicings concerns Dawid Olivier, a poet in the South African heartland who has just been laid to rest in the village cemetery by Allison, his English wife, and Marta, his black servant and mistress, by whom he had Rebecca, now 18. For some 90 minutes, the three survivors stand around Dawid’s living room, reminiscing and recriminating; the women often at a big stinkwood table, the girl mostly sullen and silent in the stylized doorway of Susan Hilferty’s ineptly minimalist set.
They are periodically interrupted by the deceased, who bursts in on them with raucous confessions, as all three adults patch together Dawid’s exile from the homeland for political reasons, his life in London, eventual leukemia, and return to the Karoo to die. The foursome take turns prattling while one or two mope or stalk about, there being no action to speak of. With perfect consistency, Fugard has directed as boringly as he has written. John Glover, Charlayne Woodard, Judith Light, and Marcy Harriell might as well save their breath for all the life they can breathe into these dud characters.
The Guys, by Professor Anne Nelson, is not so much a play as a set of eulogies commissioned from her by a fire captain for some men he lost at ground zero. We hear her coax the men’s stories from the captain’s faltering lips, then get his delivery of the finished eulogies. This elicits both repetitiousness and an involuntary but inescapable self-regard from the author, who, on the shortest notice and with no previous experience as eulogist or dramatist, proved so proficient. But given the historic and tragic resonance of the events, and Sigourney Weaver and Bill Irwin’s expert and moving delivery, The Guys cannot but hit home.
An Almost Holy Picture
By Heather McDonald; starring Kevin Bacon.
Further Than the Furthest Thing
By Zinnie Harris; directed by Neil Pepe.
Sorrows and Rejoicings
Written and directed by Athol Fugard.
By Anne Nelson; starring Sigourney Weaver and Bill Irwin.