The Austin Chronicle

Arts Reviews

Reviewed by Barry Pineo, August 10, 2007, Arts

An Almost Holy Picture

Zachary Scott Theatre's Whisenhunt Arena Stage, through Aug. 26

Running time: About 2 hr.

We all come to the idea of spirit in different ways. Samuel Gentle comes to spirit in three ways. The first occurs when one day while walking with his father both hear a voice from an unseen source say, "Follow me." Second, he and many others experience an accidental loss of epic proportions. And finally, the devout Catholic and his wife, Miriam, suffer numerous miscarriages before having a girl covered in downy-white, somewhat golden fur. Gentle loves his luminous daughter as life loves light. He and his wife shave her on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, but during the summer, for 10 weeks of vacation, they let her hair grow. They allow her to be who she is.

The production values in this Equity presentation at Zachary Scott Theatre's Whisenhunt Arena Stage are almost note-perfect. Designer Michael Raiford provides his usual simple yet striking set, this time composed of a large stone bench; a long, rectangular pit of dirt; nine jars; and a basin and cloth. Derek Whitener clothes the caretaker Gentle, played by actor Jamie Goodwin, in earth shades of brown and tan. Jason Amato could light a drama blindfolded while still hanging his always appropriate and atmospheric light. Director and Chronicle Arts Editor Robert Faires moves the play well around the Whisenhunt stage, never cheating any of the four sides. With the exception of some more often than not intrusive sounds, the technical production excels.

But the production as a whole falls short. No question Heather McDonald's got a good story, but her execution suffers. The script sounds like something written more as a novel than as a piece intended for live, direct-address audience performance. She telegraphs everything, so you can see everything coming, every plot point, every event, including the climax -- and who among us wants to see a climax coming? The possibility exists that a director and an actor can overcome the deficits in such a script, and Faires and Goodwin surely try. Faires possesses a keen sense of how and where a story turns, and he does everything about as well as it can be done in terms of having the staging reflect that. But good staging alone can't overcome this material, and that leaves Goodwin. Goodwin is a professional actor -- anyone who can hold a stage for close to two hours in a live theatrical performance is a professional actor -- but here he seems to play the end way back at the beginning. And play it for a good part of the middle. And then, of course, he has to play it at the end, as well.

The true difficulty lies in trusting material like this. Goodwin might be playing the end at the beginning because McDonald wrote it that way. He didn't have any other choice: It's all ending and no beginning! Either that or not enough beginning and way too much ending. Design, staging, an actor that can handle this much material -- no one could ask for more. Well, you can ask for a good script. Which you most certainly won't find in evidence here.

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