Play: An Almost Holy Picture
Group: Mustard Seed Theatre
Venue: Fontbonne Black Box Theatre, Fine Arts Building, 6800 Wydown Blvd.
Dates: March 12,13,14,15
Tickets: $15-$20; contact 314-719-8060 or www.mustardseedtheatre.com
Story: Samuel Gentle is the caretaker and gardener at the Church of the Holy Comforter on Cape Cod. He spends his days looking after the foliage on the archbishop’s sprawling grounds, then returns home to his wife and their only child. Samuel had been a minister for a short time, but fled from his responsibilities when several children under his guidance were killed in a bus accident in New Mexico.
He returned home to New England, where he and his wife Miriam, after many unsuccessful years of attempting to have a child, finally welcomed their daughter Ariel to the world. Ariel was born, however, with a genetic condition that left her covered with hair, and Samuel has spent his life since then protecting her from the cruelties of mean and thoughtless types. He refers to Ariel’s birth as the third event that has shaped his idea of God, following an epiphany as a child with his father on Cape Cod and the fatal tragedy in New Mexico. Those moments have left him bewildered and uncertain about his relationship with God and his own status in life.
Highlights: The theme of this one-character, two-act drama fits Mustard Seed’s philosophy “to explore our relationship with God and our ethical responsibility to the world.” It’s a daunting task, though, when a solo performer is asked to maintain an audience’s interest for nearly two hours. Gary Wayne Barker is an excellent actor and does what he can with the unflattering part of Samuel (Kevin Bacon played the part on Broadway several years ago).
He’s given excellent assistance in this regard by set designer Dunsi Dai, who fills the Fontbonne Black Box stage with the essence of Samuel’s craft, assembling dirt and assorted plants for Samuel to cultivate with his hoe and rake, all set before an imposing arch that leads into the church. Michael Sullivan lights the area with sensitivity and clarity, particularly accentuating nocturnal scenes, while Rusty Wandall adds an atmospheric sound design, and costume coordinator Deanna Jent dresses Samuel appropriately in plain, functional attire.
Other Info: Unfortunately, as a drama An Almost Holy Picture largely doesn’t work, primarily because Samuel, despite his travails, comes across unsympathetically as a whiner and a bit of a weakling, literally lacking the courage of convictions. He’s much more inhibited by his daughter’s affliction than is she, which ultimately leads to a cruelly embarrassing moment.
Director Bruce Longworth does a solid job throughout setting the table for this fable and extracts a nicely measured performance by Barker, who poignantly conveys his character’s pain and insecurities. In the end, however, McDonald’s tale simply elicits more revulsion than admiration.
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.