An Almost Holy Picture by Heather McDonald. Directed by Michael Mayer. Scenic design by Mark Wendland. Costume design by Michael Krass. Lighting design by Kevin Adams. Sound design by Scott Myers and Robert Kaplowitz. Starring Kevin Bacon.
Imagine you are an actor cast in a one-man show produced as part of a college playwriting class. How would you begin to communicate awkwardly ineffective ideas, find subtleties where none exist, and handle ham-handed dialogue for two hours straight?
Now imagine you're at a Broadway theater watching this.
Such are the twin plights presented as part of An Almost Holy Picture, Heather McDonald's new play at the American Airlines Theatre.
Kevin Bacon is the star and unfortunate casualty. He tries diligently to make the evening work; you see him working devilishly hard every second that he's onstage. Every line delivery is carefully thought-out, every physical action minutely directed, every moment and beat incessantly but silently choreographed. Bacon definitely tackles the challenge with admirable aplomb.
It simply doesn't get him anywhere. It can't.
He looks positively minuscule on the stage. Mark Wendland's set isn't exactly overwhelming, but it seems unnecessarily large and complicated for a one man show of this nature. The set consists of little more than a hill of earth, a raised platform (to facilitate entrances and exits), a long pool of water, a few other assorted props, with a background appearing to be a sky stretching into infinity (heaven, perhaps?).
It's a stark but striking representation of the church grounds of which Bacon's character, Samuel Gentle, is the caretaker. Bacon, clad in mostly conservative, strait-laced attire (by Michael Krass), never really stands out above it. Bacon's glasses and clothes do more than inform the audience of his character, they mute his performance. Bacon is never allowed to use the raw, edgy quality that serves him so well in his film work. His performance, as mentioned, is strictly controlled and staid, underplaying almost to the point of underacting. But for that, Bacon cannot be blamed. He is simply let down in every conceivable way by the script.
We learn that Gentle was once in the ministry, if only for a brief period of time, though he has nonetheless devoted much of his life to God. He and his wife tried a number of times to have a child, resulting each time in a miscarriage. When he and his wife are able to deliver a child (a daughter, named Ariel), it turns out she is suffering from a condition for which there is no cure and which, we are informed, is passed down from the opposite sex parent.
Gentle must deal with all of this during the course of the show. His rage at not being able to have a child, followed by the joy of finally succeeding, then the sorrow of discovering Ariel's diagnosis, followed by years of trying to deal with her problems, real and imagined, of being accepted by others. Clearly, McDonald wishes to leave no buttons unpushed.
Unfortunately, McDonald pulls the strings it in the most transparent ways possible. Blatant setups for unsatisfying payoffs abound and predictable plot twists are everywhere; An Almost Holy Picture feels more like an outline for a script than a final version. Everything you expect to happen will happen, and every emotion you think could be tweaked will be. There are no surprises.
For all of McDonald's work, very little in the show is moving or profound. For a show with as manipulative elements as this one, for issues like one's relationship to God or how to deal with a trouble child to not strike a chord deep within is troubling at best. It's also tremendously unfortunate for Pamela Ward, who wrote The Hairy Little Girl, the story on which the play is based; McDonald's treatment does Ward no favors, reducing the condition to little more than one in a series of poorly connected plot points.
The two people associated with this production able to emerge mostly unscathed are director Michael Mayer and light designer Kevin Adams. Mayer breathes every bit of life into the show he can. He sets up scenes and moments so they're played out to their maximum effectiveness (whatever that is in this show), and creates some unique and memorable stage pictures, lit by Adams in unexpected and eminently creative ways.
In fact, the work of Mayer and Adams can easily be looked at just that way. Bacon standing alone on a giant hill in front of an endless sky, ruminating on the plight of his daughter and his own place in the spiritual universe. When Mayer and Adams snap their camera, there are visual moments in the show you'll never forget.
What a shame that An Almost Holy Picture wasn't better developed.