An Almost Holy Picture
A minister experiences a crisis of faith in this durable religious investigation
Published: February 16, 2011
An Almost Holy Picture
By Heather McDonald
Through Feb. 20 at Rep Stage
Samuel Gentle is the only character that appears onstage during Heather McDonald’s An Almost Holy Picture, and his first words are: “There are three experiences that have shaped my personal idea of God.” A theatergoer might cringe at such a declaration, wary of being pressed to accept the playwright’s own concept of a supreme being. That fear is gradually but steadily alleviated by actor and Rep Stage’s artistic director Michael Stebbins, who delivers Samuel’s lines not in the fiery oratory of an evangelizing true believer but with the quiet self-effacement and halting pauses of a meek man who merely wants to be a believer.
Stebbins adopts the stiff posture and quiet, bewildered tone of someone who wonders why the universe is allowed to do the awful things it does. This low-key approach can be frustrating until it dawns on us that Samuel is more of a nebbish than a prophet, governed by his last name more than his first. He is a man so beaten down by life that each tentative observation is accompanied by a subtle wince as if he’s half expecting another blow. Ultimately, this approach is more effective and consistent with the character than Tim Grimm’s showier, more self-assured performance in the 1999 Center Stage production of the same play.
The 49-year-old Samuel is a former minister who has worked for the past 21 years as the gardener for a Catholic bishop. James Fouchard’s set emphasizes Samuel’s seclusion. The garden is cut off from the outside world by a curving stone wall; the grounds, like Samuel’s own life, are deep into autumn, and dead leaves litter the flagstones. The caretaker can’t sleep, so he has come down to the oval flowerbed and stone benches and birdbath to mull over his life.
He recalls his early posting to a parish near Acoma, N.M., located near local Hopi Indians and Latin-Americans. One woman, Inez Castillo, used to shout at the sky, “The hell with you! The hell with you!” When Samuel, in flashback, asks what she’s doing, she replies that she’s praying. If prayer is giving God one’s full attention, she says, she’s giving him her full attention. The fact that Samuel can accept that explanation is the first indication that he’s far from a conventional clergyman. And when something goes terribly wrong at the church’s summer camp and nine children die, Samuel comes to sympathize with Inez even more.
Shattered by the event, Samuel leaves the ministry and New Mexico and becomes a bishop’s gardener in Massachusetts. Standing near the flowerbed with his rimless glasses, gray mustache, brown coat, and work boots, he still marvels at how his life was revived just when he thought it was moribund. He fell in love with Miriam, an anthropology professor who specialized in the Hopi, and they married. Then more crushing disappointment: three miscarriages. Then another marvel: a healthy daughter. Then another challenge: no, not entirely healthy. Ariel suffered from a rare disease, hypertrichosis lanugo, that covered her entire body in a fine layer of hair. She may have been beautiful when the light struck her a certain way, but she would never have a normal life.
So, for Samuel, parenthood becomes an exaggerated version of the joys and fears that most parents feel. When Ariel is old enough to attend public school, she is subject to the ambitions, crushes, and ridicule of any preteen. Her doting father is so certain that something terrible is about to happen to her that in his efforts to ward it off, he hurries it along. And when it arrives, it is devastating.
What are we to make of a universe that bats us back and forth like a tennis ball between unexpected joy and unfathomable despair? Playwright McDonald crisply articulates that question through her protagonist’s life story. Because she writes so well, we can see—even in this one-man show—Inez shouting at the sky, Samuel sharing coffee and cigarettes with the bishop, and Ariel posing for photographs. Because McDonald has made Samuel so unassuming, so unwilling to proselytize, we are willing to let down our guard against religious discussion and ponder that question. Stebbins, with help from director Tony Tsendeas, helps this approach enormously by being the most understated of actors.
Like this character, though, McDonald never quite answers the central question. Like Samuel, she ultimately views God as a source of solace, not explanations. And that’s open-ended enough to allow room for most people’s “personal idea” of god—or even for their personal idea of a bewilderingly godless universe.