Written by Samuel D. Hunter
Directed by Stella Powell-Jones
Featuring Mary Theresa Archbold, Shannon DeVido, Pamela Sabaugh
Theater Breaking Through Barriers at the Clurman Theatre
June 11, 2016 – July 16, 2016
“It almost looks like a sitcom set,” says an audience neighbor, some minutes before the lights go down on Samuel D. Hunter‘s new commissioned play for Theater Breaking Through Barriers at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row. Yes, you get hits of the long-running working-class tough-love love story Roseanne and its well-worn living room from this set’s crocheted blanket-draped sofa sitting squarely center stage and the roughed up, oddly overstuffed, spare furnishings. Take a few minutes to examine set decorations that foreshadow and underscore character details: hoarder-ish piles of collectibles fill every nook and cranny of what appears to be the home of a person of modest means. Cardboard shipping boxes are stuffed into spaces around furniture and the collectibles themselves are piled on shelves and into plastic containers. We see a house awaiting life to begin or a death to be mourned. As we meet the assembled characters, we learn that the journey of The Healing is a bit of both.
We meet Sharon (Shannon DeVido), Donald (David Harrell), Bonnie (Jamie Petrone), Laura (Mary Theresa Archbold), and Zoe in flashback the dead householder (Pamela Sabaugh) as thirty-somethings, who all attended a Christian Scientist summer camp near Idaho Falls when they were children. What they all shared then, besides this childhood faith that all but Zoe relinquished as time passed, was the fact that they each had some sort of disability that Joan (Lynne Lipton), the head of the camp, was convinced that their shared faith could cure if only they prayed hard enough. Sharon and Bonnie are in wheelchairs, Donald has a foreshortened arm. Fellow camper Zoe, the owner of the home whose funeral and estate settling the old friends have convened to experience and sort through, had a visual impairment. Tempers flare, people are controlling as they always were (see Sharon) or hard-nosed in a way that is ultimately revealed in a theatrical manner (see Laura the Latvian adoptee recalling her childhood orphanage in an exchange with a deaf character who is cannot hear her). And they each allude to or organize their lives around their differing abilities in different ways.
What brings the characters of The Healing together is not their shared experiences of the camp and faith that didn’t want them (and as a kind of emotional afterthought we learn that the kids banded together in an unclear process and had the camp shut down after their summer there) but is rather a young adult rite of passage. What links a person to members of the general public at one age rarely continues to hold that power in later years. School day chums fall away when daily routines are far in the past and true personalities and class memberships and politics enter the story. We know this plot — Now and Then (1995) about a suburban girl gang and their older selves or Beautiful Girls (1996) with upstate New York 20-somethings returning for a reunion and holiday to name a few film examples.
An issue with this play in its current form is that it is trying to be more than this — a treatise on the interactions of faith and disability and especially a musing on the passive and yet judgmental stance of Christian Science in the hands of one camp director (the Joan we hear about through the play and encounter in one extended static scene at the play’s end) toward several campers who happen to have physical challenges. The dimensions of faith and abilities are reported and debated rather than dramatized, and the tenets of Christian Science in particular are insufficiently explored as an emotional or integrated textual component for us to feel it. Just how the campers experienced the judgment and damage and instruction to “pray away their disability” is reported to us rather than enacted with and for us. A flashback scene between Zoe, the dead friend, and her closest friend Sharon reveals part of the backstory of Zoe thinking Sharon is a “healer” in the sense of her religion, when in fact Sharon administered antibiotics to Zoe by stealth to cure a case of strep throat. The plot details hang around the edges of the characters like un-assembled parts of a puzzle.
This is an almost motionless piece that focuses on words, with several impediments to that dimension of the production. Movement in and through the set is minimal and stilted, with characters and wheelchairs and with other impediments making their way in among boxes and overstuffed furniture. The actors themselves all too often almost whisper their words in the unamplified space at a mumblecore deliberately undifferentiated pace that obfuscates understanding.
Despite these challenges, there are moments of iridescent theater involving characters and actresses already singled out. Shannon DeVido in almost any scene she’s in radiates wit and wisdom and lingering anger that I wished she had a more textually satisfying target for her emotions than Joan the old camp director. Mary Theresa Archbold as Laura in her monologue relating a return to her Latvian homeland and the orphanage where she spent her early pre-adoption years breaks your heart.
So in The Healing there is a death to be mourned and lives waiting to begin. And a few laughs in a subdued key to enjoy along the way. “I shouldn’t take Vicodin and interact with people,” Laura says at one point. Yes.
© Martha Wade Steketee (June 27, 2016)
Playwright | Samuel D. Hunter
Director | Stella Powell-Jones
Set Design | Jason Simms
Lighting | Alejandro Fajardo
Sound Design | Brandon Wolcott
Costume Design | Christopher Metzger
Dramaturgy | John M. Baker