Reviewed by Will Stackman
Epic works are easier to turn into film scripts than into stage plays, but British playwright Simon Bent managed to turn John Irving's almost 700 page novel into a very workable two and one-half hour drama. The RNT staged the piece to great acclaim in June 2002, and the Playmakers, the professional company at Chapel Hill, opened their 2003 season with this shorter version tailored for American audiences. Stoneham's production was a New England premiere and while fans of the novel may have found some of the action too condensed, those unfamiliar with this story which covers almost forty years found it compelling and may be encouraged to read the original.
Predictably "A Prayer for Owen Meany" hinged on the actor playing the title role, and in New Yorker Ken Schatz Stoneham found a riveting performer for the role, at once repellent and intriguing. One can understand why John Wheelwright, played by Timothy Smith became friends with "the boy with the wrecked voice, the smallest person he ever knew." And the religious puzzle this odd young person becomes may haunt the audience as much as it does Wheelwright, self-exiled to Canada. Schatz creates an unforgettable character, realizing both Bent and Irving's intentions.
Director Weylin Symes assembled an impressive ensemble to support the two mismatched friends as they mature from middle school to college age. John's rich grandmother, proud of her New England heritage, is played by Ann Marie Shea, a retired Worcester State professor. Her wheelchair-bound cook is done by Bobbie Steinbach, fresh from Maria in ASP's "Twelfth Night." Caitlin Lowans, Stoneham's education director is John's singer mother, Tabitha, a free spirit who Owen kills with the only line drive he was ever been able to hit. Owen Doyle, seen this fall as Seward in Stoneham's original adaptation of "Dracula" is Owen's stonecutter farmer, while Sharon Mason is his mother and David Arum plays John's kindly stepfather, Dan. Stoneham has widened its pool of local talent ready to participate in its unique productions.
The play's religious argument about faith, as in the novel, involved Reverend Merrill, the town of Gravesend's Congregational minister. played by newcomer Jon. L. Egging and Stephen Russell from W.H.A.T., as Rector Wiggins, a breezy Episcopalian, a former airline pilot. The Rector's wife, Barb, a former stewardess, is played by Lisa Tucker who, of course, now runs the Sunday school. Russell also doubles at Dr. Dolder, the school psychiatrist. Menacing Floyd Richardson tripled as an eccentric neighbor, Mr. Fish, plus the police chief and Owen's senior officer at the end of the play. The four ensemble members who fill various roles are Cory Scott, who ultimately becomes Owen's nemesis, Gerald Slattery who starts by bullying Owen in the fourth grade and winds up playing his school's new progressive head master, plus Christine Hamel and Cristi Miles, who played school girls, nuns, and various wives and mothers.
The show was presented on a simple unit set designed by Audra Avery realized with help from Jenna McFarland. Its plain black background divided into panels used scrims as well and the gray arc of platforms has a surprising center which moved forward and back. Props and furniture were minimal but sufficient. Seth Bodie created at set of costumes which allowed the cast to shift from the late '50s to the '80s, and back again, as John tries to make sense of his friend Owen's life and death. Gianni Downs' skillful lighting kept the action flowing, as the scenes and years overlap. David Wilson's soundscape helped in the same fashion. The result was one of the best productions seen at Stoneham, which has set itself a high standard in the past.
Irving's novel is a difficult book to say the least. Somewhat autobiographical, it also clearly intends to seriously explore the complex religious traditions in New England, both Protestant and Catholic. Bent has nicely condensed the action while keeping the style of the book. He's eliminated several incidents and characters while focusing on Owen, and always in the background, John. Schatz makes the biggest initial impression, but Smith's modulated expression of John's inner conflicts will last as well. It says something about an successful adaptation, and its direction, when the presentation generates the desire to reread the original to rediscover its additional complexities.