It would be all too easy to label the story of Joseph de Veuster an interesting, if perhaps unexceptional, one. A man in his youth heeds a calling to the priesthood, and spends the majority of his vocation tending to lepers on a tiny island. This is the story of Damien, now at the Jose Quintero Theatre.
In truth, though, the story concerning Father Damien's work goes deeper than that. And, if the subject seems unsuitable for a play at all, let alone a one man show, don't underestimate the drama that can be found in the most straightforward of situations. This is drama the play's author, Aldyth Morris, is surprisingly successful at bringing out.
Damien becomes something of an unwitting celebrity because of his work with the lepers, forcing him to deal with pride and such troubling outside concerns. He has difficulties communicating with the Church and getting others to believe in him and his work, and must tackle his own quirks and temptations as well. Damien covers a surprising amount of ground.
Sometimes, in fact, too much. The play feels very strongly like Morris had so many moments or, for want of a better term, lessons to include, without necessarily tying them in as well as may be possible. The use of a framing device, where Damien narrates the events of his life nearly fifty years after his death, is also curious, and unlike most one-man shows, Damien never really portrays another character, only himself. This leads to lots of one-sided conversations and some oddly unfilled moments of stage time.
This is generally covered well by Casey Groves' performance. Though he seems a bit young and spry at times for Damien, he has a rich voice perfect for a preacher, and regal stance and posture that give him a sense of authority onstage. Making his entrance and exit through the aisle of the theatre only heightens the priestly attitude he already exudes. His performance is very measured and seldom exciting, but he is able to handle the most spiritual moments of the play beautifully. He truly gives his soul to this role.
Mark Bloom and Peter John Cameron co-directed the show, but have put few stamps of their own on the staging. When Father Damien delivers a speech while standing on a rock or gives his confession while another priest, forbidden to come to the island, leans over the dock of a ship, are done straightforwardly at best, and begin to grow tiresome as the show goes on. Bloom also did the lighting, which is overdone in a few places, but Paul Falcon's simple set is appropriate for the low-key nature of the show.
Though the attitude and general subject matter of Damien is familiar, the show has plenty of merit of its own. It is able to make even familiar concepts and ideas interesting enough to hold your attention for the 75 minutes it runs. Morris's Damien - like the real one, one supposes - is an imperfect man, at the mercy of his temper and his human failings. But, as might be expected, he's able to overcome these failings to the satisfaction of most others, if not himself.
Damien may wear its purpose and its spirituality like vestments, but is, in the end, something anyone of any faith can appreciate.