Miracles, like so many things in life, cannot be easily explained. And sometimes, attempting to do just that runs the risk of missing the point entirely. The characters in Barbara Wiechmann's new play The Holy Mother of Hadley New York, now playing at the Ohio Theatre, must deal with this issue. Their author could stand to pay more attention to her own words.
The situation Wiechmann has created is an interesting one. The small upstate New York town of Hadley is shook when one of its citizens, Agnes La Voie (Gretchen Lee Krich), has a vision of Mary, who promises she will be visiting Hadley soon. Mary doesn't make the reason for her visit entirely clear, but it's enough for Agnes and most of the people in the town.
What comprises most of the rest of the play is a series of vignettes, as a number of the people in the town confront this miracle. Whatever their religious beliefs, none of them are able to escape from the grip of wondering what Mary's visit will bring. Under Rachel Dickstein's direction, the non-stop parade of talk about Jesus and miracles takes on a significance and an urgency that may have been more difficult in someone else's hands.
Most of this vanishes once the visit actually occurs. Make no mistake though, Dickstein stages the visit itself as one of the most effective scenes in the play. All eleven actors, who have played dozens of characters throughout the show, appear onstage at once, and confront the miracle. When the miracle does come, it creates a delicious tension that engulfs the audience as much as the actors, right until its nearly perfect resolution.
Unfortunately, the play does not end when the scene ends, and what follows is far less intriguing and involving than what came before. The last two scenes of the play feel so forced and painfully contrived that they almost erase the memory of the many beautiful moments and insightful writing that had been standard up to that point.
Regardless, Dickstein is able to create the atmosphere of a town. With the help of Sarah Edkins's warm, friendly sets, Katherine Hampton's costumes, and the actors, eleven actors are able effectively portray dozens of characters. This device only really becomes problematic in Krich's case, who gives such a strong performance in the play's central role as Agnes, that it is far more difficult to accept her in other roles. Malachy Cleary also stands out as Francis Potter, the town's priest, but most of the other performers play so many roles in such quick succession that it is difficult to single out one specific role or performance from the talented ensemble.
The only one of the people of Hadley who is not well written is the show's narrator, Vincent, played by Alan Benditt. He does what he can, but his introduction to Hadley at the beginning and his mostly unnecessary ramblings throughout distract from the show's strong townlike atmosphere rather than add to it. Lenore Doxsee's particularly creative lighting makes a far more effective contribution.
Wiechmann's play, despite the last two scenes, is mostly touching and inspiring as a portrait of small town life and religion in the modern age. If you can get past the final fatal minutes of The Holy Mother of Hadley New York, you too may find that your own sense of faith - in life, and in the theatre - has grown stronger and more defined.