Wednesday 26 July 2017

Irving's Owen Meany raises old grievances anew
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : Popular American novelist John Irving's books are often described as storytelling that is Dickensian. Sprawling. Epic. I.e. not lending themselves to the reductions and redactions required of stage or film treatment (The 1999 Cider House Rules flik captured a few slices of the original novel mostly thanks to Michael Caine's superior turn as Dr. Wilbur Larch : one twinkle in Caine's eyes is worth a dozen Irving pages). 

For his part, British playwright Simon Bent took on the challenge of adapting A Prayer For Owen Meany to the stage because he himself prefers economy to embellishment. Crystallization rather than the full-on character elaboration Irving is famous for. Such challenge is what Director Ian Farthing's troupe the Ensemble Theatre Company currently faces at the chummy and intimate (and summery hot!) Jericho Arts Centre.

A show for our time ? In reviewing Irving's novel for the New York Times back in March of 1989, Alfred Kazin observed that "...some of our most talented novelists see the political condition of American society as a disaster, the temper of many Americans as correspondingly dangerous. In 'A Prayer for Owen Meany' John Irving makes it all too plain, and with positive rage, that in his eyes American society has been a moral disaster since the 1960's." Nigh unto 30 years back when Kazin wrote that descriptor.  Long! before any of Bill-&-Monica, WMD, 'Arab Spring' -or- The Donald. 

Important to note that the operative words in Kazin's piece are "moral disaster". JFK sleeping with Marilyn Monroe is pointed to as a cardinal example of such. This from a horny, priapic Owen who propositions a high school classmate's mother. 

Step-dad Dan gives son John (Anthony Santiago) a baseball glove that thrills Owen Meany (Chris Lam), too.
Photo by Javier R. Sotres
For its part, today's zeitgeist features a world whose antithetical religious faiths are openly at war not only with each other as usual, but sect-vs-sect as well. Given the seemingly amoral world that is now ours, then, remounting this script is apt and appropriate. Human reflections and age-old themes are resurrected anew. The Meany dialogue abounds with considerations such as fate-vs-free will; faith-vs-doubt; organized religion-vs-personal spirituality; loyalty-vs-identity; freedom-vs-duty.  Perhaps not simply a trip down memory lane to look at the post-WW II America of the 50's and 60's -- that was Irving's avowed purpose when he originally scripted his 637-page saga.

What the show brings to the stage : Two lifelong friends are the play's focus. They remain so, perhaps curiously, even after the age 11 soprano-voiced shrimp Owen Meany (Chris Lam) accidentally kills the mother of his friend John Wheelwright (Anthony Santiago). Just 39, Tabitha Wheelwright (Alexis Kellum-Creer) -- whom Owen loves desperately -- dies from a freak line-drive foul ball to the left temple Owen hits at the boys' weekly little league game. Her breathtaking death is what inspires Owen to think himself an "instrument of God", else why would God permit such a tragedy at his hand?

Happier times when Tabitha (Alexis Kellum-Creer) and Dan Needham (Adam Beauchesne) plan to wed.
Javier Sotre photo.
With the death of his single-mom mother -- the identity of his father remains a family mystery for years to come -- John is put through his paces on a host of religious and personal footings. Most of the action occurs in his home town somewhat archly named Gravesend, which can be given either atheist or Christian meanings. Competing theologies -- Catholic, Episcopalian, Congregational -- are visited and dissected, often with irony and comic flair. 

Along the way Owen is regularly bullied for his slight stature and skreaky voice, not to mention his fat intellect, his continuous disparagement of The System and this fixation of his that he is God's "instrument" -- a new Jesus, perhaps. He has dreams and visions, and imagines (correctly, it turns out) the precise day and time of his own death. 

He joins the U.S. Army, does service in Nam as a medic and comes home alive. After Owen's heroic death in Arizona at the hands of a messed up white trash teenager, his buddy Johnny hies himself off to Canada to teach at Bishop Strachan School in Toronto. Shortly before, the ball that killed his mom is found so the final apocalyptic revelations of the plot are now all at hand. Johnny provides the show's denouement with a touching tribute that echoes the words of the quirky little fellow, his friend : he'll pray to God the rest of his days to Please! just bring him back!

Production values that shine through :  Having read Meany years ago, I for one might agree that at first blush it appears unfit for conversion to a stage play. But Simon Bent -- except for a hopelessly didactic soliloquy by Owen at play's end -- does a clever turn pulling the best bits from Irving's layered story and making a watchable comic soap opera with serious ethical underpinnings out of it all.

Staging (blocking, actor placement & stage business) by Director Ian Farthing was extremely effective on the "thrust" stage -- audience on three sides. Set Designer Lauchlin Johnston's ginormous wooden armchair for pint-sized Owen was perfect. His accompanying side-piece living room for Owen's dour Irish parents next door to dad's quarry worked well for contrast.  Costumes, lighting and sound spots contributed to a rich outing. That the script was cut down by a 1/2-hour and compressed into two acts instead of three as performed elsewhere previously was certainly a wise dramatic decision. 

Angry brother (Francis Winter) rants at Owen Meany over his brother's futile VietNam War death.
Javier Sotre photo.
Acting pin-spots : Kudos to Chris Lam for maintaining his high-pitched nerdish performance the night long as God's tormented agent Owen Meany. As one steeped in Christian theology for most of my seven decades, the thrust-&-parry of the religious arguments resonated well. Opposite, Anthony Santiago as Johnny worked hard to act the part of Owen's grammar school chum.

The nascent lovers Tabitha (Ms. Kellum-Creer) and Dan Needham (Adam Beauchesne) were touching, lit.-&-fig. Their wedding \ funeral staging piece was clever and well-executed. As the Jarvitt family's 15-year-old psycho son, Francis Winter was chilling. Of the dozen other actors on stage, special shout-outs to Sue Sparlin as Grandma Wheelwright and to her sardonic cook and helpmeet Lydia played by Lindsay Nelson. Both choice bits of acting. But strong performances by everyone in the show, no question.

Who gonna like :  It certainly helps to know the Irving novel, its context, its Christian religious nuances from back-in-the-day, why the VietNam war was such a turning point for America at the time, all that. But even the middle-age woman behind me who had to ask what Episcopalian and Congregational church affiliations were all about -- Canadian equivalents being the Anglican and United Church groups, I advised her -- even she and her entourage enthused over the performances Ensemble Theatre Company put forth. 

Easy to kvetch over the usual overemphasis on the eff-word that Vancouver actors are famous for. And, as mentioned, the final Meany soliloquy was painful -- patronizing, pontifical and redundant -- but that is adaptor Simon Bent's "my bad", not the fault of the ETC company : and besides it's over in a few scant minutes. 

In this social media universe that consumes us, visiting ideas that require considerably more contemplation than a mere 140 characters on Twitter or the immediacy of an Instagram msg. is time well-invested for a summer night's divertissement out at Jericho Beach. 

Particulars : Produced by Ensemble Theatre Company.  At Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery Street.  On until August 18.  Tickets & schedule from the company website  Run-time 140 minutes, including two intermissions.

Production team : Script by Simon Bent, adapted from the novel by John Irving. Director Ian Farthing.  Assistant Director Adam Beauchesne.  Set Designer Lauchlin Johnston.  Lighting Designer Patrick Smith.  Costume Designer Julie White.  Sound Designer Karina Pry.  Stage Manager Sammie Hatch. 

Performers :  Mariam Barry (Girl/Sam White/Jarvitt).  Adam Beauchesne (Dan Needham).  Sue Sparlin (Grandma). Gabriel Carter (Dr. Dolder/Mr. Meany).  James Gill (Rev. Wiggins/Rawls).  Alysson Hall (Mary Beth).  Simon Hayama (Mr. Fish/Randy White/Jarvitt Father).  Alexis Kellum-Creer (Tabitha Wheelwright).  Chris Lam (Owen Meany).  Lindsay Nelson (Lydia).  Connor Parnall (Harold/Larry/Coach Chickering).  Christine Reinfort (Mrs. Lish).  Anthony Santiago (John Wheelwright).  Kim Steger (Mrs. Meany).  David Wallace (Rev. Merrill).  Rebecca Walters (Barb Wiggins/Jarvitt Mother).  Francis Winter (Boy/Chief Pike/Jarvitt Son). 

Addendum :  Ensemble Theatre Company, in its fifth Vancouver summer repertory season, describes itself thus : "Vancouver-based Ensemble Theatre Company is dedicated to producing accessible and relevant theatre. The company sees theatre as an essential cultural force in leading and framing dialogue on current issues, and takes artistically innovative approaches to classics as well as mounting challenging modern and contemporary plays. The non-profit arts organization is devoted to nurturing both artists and audiences, creating a place of inclusion and a forum for ideas and dialogue."

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