Friday, June 24, 2016

32. Review: THE HEALING (seen June 23, 2016)

"Onward, Christian Scientists?"
Stars range from 5-1.

A number of recent plays (Antlia Pneumatica, The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family: Hungry, Out of the Mouths of Babes, etc.) have taken cinema’s The Big Chill premise of having a number of disparate friends gather to mourn a deceased acquaintance (friend, spouse, lover, whatever), giving them a chance to rake over the coals of the past as they come to terms not only with the lost one but with themselves and their relationships.
Shannon DeVido, John McGinty, Jamie Petrone. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The same trope inspires The Healing, Samuel D. Hunter’s (The Whalesensitive but unsentimental, intermittently funny, overly chatty, and  thinly plotted new play. It reunites four friends in their thirties who, as disabled children, regularly attended a faith-based camp that catered to their special needs. The camp leader, a woman called Joan (Lynne Lipton), was a Christian Scientist who insisted their ailments were a sign of spiritual illness that could be cured by the power of prayer. 

One of their campmates, Zoe (Pamela Sabaugh), herself a devout Christian Scientist, appears to have killed herself (she was found frozen in the snow several feet from her home). They’ve flown out to her rural Idaho home from around the country to attend her funeral and help with her personal affairs; this includes packing up the kitschy curios and gewgaws decorating the walls and shelves of her home (nicely captured in Jason Simms’s design). As a reminder of Zoe’s tchotchke mania (a defense against loneliness), a TV remains on much of the time tuned to a shopping channel (the remote’s been misplaced).

Sharon (Shannon DeVido) and Bonnie (Jamie Petrone) are both in wheelchairs (Sharon’s electric, Bonnie’s manual), while Donald (David Harrell), who’s gay, and Laura (Mary Theresa Archbold) lack a hand and arm, respectively. (The script, though, apart from saying Sharon is in a wheelchair, doesn’t designate any disabilities for the actors.) Also present is Bonnie’s hearing-impaired but lip-reading boyfriend of nine months, Greg (John McGinty). The excellent . ensemble belongs to a company called Theater Breaking Through Barriers, founded in 1979 and dedicated to artists with disabilities.
As they reminisce, the friends ponder what might have driven Zoe to take her own life; could she have suffered a crisis of faith? Much of this registers more as small talk (and small arguments), such as whether someone is or isn’t a bad person or the value of religion as a source of solace for the lonely and depressed; unhappiness is a thread, although not in any sense that makes these people different from any others, disabled or not. 
Shannon DeVido, David Harrell, Jamie Petrone. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Flashbacks (smartly indicated by shifts in Alejandro Fajardo’s lighting) take us to the time of a visit by Sharon to Zoe when she was ill, allowing a full-throated discussion between the pious Zoe, who refuses medical help, and the irreligious Sharon, who secretly feeds her troubled friend antibiotics to cure her strep throat. Their dispute over the relative value of faith and medicine has dramatic value but is undercut by Hunter's hints that Zoe's piety may be psychotic.
Mary Theresa Archbold, John McGinty. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Toward the end, a forgiveness-seeking Joan shows up. What she says seems contrived but she and the simmering, cynical Sharon, whose complaints were responsible for shutting down the camp, do engage in a vivid conversation, with Sharon blaming Joan for Zoe's death; slowly, the play’s title comes into focus.
Mary Theresa Archbold, John McGinty. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Regardless of the actors’ particular physical problems, there’s nothing wrong with their acting, each character being completely real and in the moment; DeVido makes a particularly strong impression because of her role's sharp edges but there really aren't any weak links. Hunter has helped greatly by drawing each with great care, showing them as fully dimensional, warts and all. Director Stella Powell-Jones’s pause-filled, 90-minute, intermissionless production tends toward occasional sluggishness, however, and only a few scenes have conventional dramatic punch. 

Perhaps some of The Healing's ailments would benefit from a visit to the play doctor; as a piece of theatre, though, its sweet cast makes the medicine go down.


Clurman Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd Street, NYC
Through July 16