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The Healing

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - June 22, 2016

Shannon DeVido, David Harrell, and Jamie Petrone
Photo by Carol Rosegg

The Healing, the new play by Samuel D. Hunter that just opened at the Clurman Theatre, could—on the surface, anyway—not be a better match for the company producing it. The group of adults at its center all suffer from some physical disability, and as children attended the same Christian Science camp where they were promise they would be made whole if only they'd prayed hard enough, and are now gathering together at the funeral of one of their comrades who never quite stopped believing that. As Theater Breaking Through Barriers is dedicated to giving theatre artists with similar challenges new opportunities, there's an undeniable fineness in the resulting fusion.

The performers are good, too. As the bitter, wheelchair-bound Sharon, whose crusading helped shut down the camp and who has turned against everything spiritual as a result, Shannon DeVido beautifully blends distaste with despair, and projects all the woman's caring as if from an immeasurable distance. Donald, the gay man with only one good arm, is played by David Harrell that suggests forgiveness tinted with acceptance. Jamie Petrone takes on Bonnie, also confined to a wheelchair, by showing her as being as physically and mentally resourceful as she is sad, someone who uses achievement to cover up her own essential anguish. Though Bonnie's deaf boyfriend, Greg, was not one of the original campers (he met her recently on a blind date), John McGinty ensures that he fits right in, with an off-kilter sense of humor and barely-beneath-the-surface rage that hints without overstating that he has more than his own share of issues. And if Laura is missing an arm, Mary Theresa Archbold ensures with her brusque and brooding, yet appealingly comedic, portrayal that she's much more wounded on the inside.

Stella Powell-Jones has staged simply but declaratively, on a cramped but homey set by Jason Simms, so that tiny motions have big impact. (When Sharon is angry, for example, DeVido wields her electric wheelchair as though it were a tank.) The other production elements, which include Christopher Metzger's costumes, Alejandro Fajardo's lights, and Brandon Wolcott's sound, contribute nicely to creating a backwoods, small-mountain-town feeling about ready to explode with contemporary rage.

Unfortunately, these handsome elements have not found a script worthy of their polish. Hunter's writing trades so thoroughly on clich├ęs—many of them his own—that you need but a rudimentary understanding of industrial-grade pulp to predict what's going to happen and how before you even step in the door. The title is enough to spoil the game, it's double layer of irony all but outlined in neon. The characters are all sketches, names and but occasional details (the deepest we dig into anyone involves learning that Sharon's job involves "metadata," invoked strictly as a buzzword and not an extension of her personality), that all but insist you rely on your sympathy for the actors to fill in the blanks. The plotting, what little there is, is hardly more robust, an unconvincing, unexciting linking of confrontations that land more arbitrarily than emphatically, and don't so much build to something as they do shrink from everything else—a storytelling device that is not exactly captivating.

Nor has Hunter dared taking risks with the format: Though the kindly Theatre Row ushers don't hand you Playbills going in, you don't need them to know for a certainty that both the deceased friend (Zoe) and the evil camp counselor (Joan) will eventually make appearances to the tortured souls they left behind. But even this predictability is not untainted: Zoe is portrayed in flashbacks as such a deluded crackpot, and Joan so doddering and clueless that you're forced to wonder whether she ever bought what was preaching (spoiler: she's come around since then, because of course she has), that there's no room left for the emotional excavation and exploration that drives theatre. (In by far the show's weakest roles, Pamela Sabaugh and Lynne Lipton respectively do everything they can, usually in vain, to make these women three-dimensional.)

Perhaps this could have been avoided, or at least mitigated, had Hunter been more willing to stray from his own oeuvre, but that limitation almost seems to have been the point of it all. Like The Whale, Pocatello, and A Bright New Boise before it, The Healing apparently exists solely to critique (if you're feeling charitable) or bash (if you're not) religious, working-class people in Idaho (Hunter's home state). One should give him credit, I suppose, for moving on to Christian Science after taking on the vast, threatening likes of Mormons, Evangelicals, Olive Garden, and Hobby Lobby, but the one-sidedness his writing displays makes it impossible for it to encourage a greater conversation about the role faith can or should assume in our lives, its ostensible subject.

But because no broader intention or more incisive argument emerges to anchor the play in our minds, hearts, or spirits, it ultimately leads to nothing except a clearer view of its own soullessness. Theatre Breaking Through Barriers and the actors here are dedicated to proving that there's more to everyone and everything than meets the eye, and that's a laudable, even inspiring, goal. But there's little they, or anyone, could do to elevate The Healing: A rant's a rant, no matter how prettily it's dressed up.

The Healing
Through July 16
Clurman Theater, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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