Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

A Prayer For Owen Meany

Ian Merrill Peakes
John Irving's 1989 novel A Prayer For Owen Meany is a meditation on some of the most important concerns of the human race - faith, doubt, destiny, the meaning of life. But Simon Bent's stage adaptation, now playing at the Arden Theatre, takes those compelling issues and turns them into well-intentioned mush. The production suffers from stagnant lead performances and direction that rarely finds the right balance between the sacred and the absurd that is so crucial to Irving's fictional world. Running over two and a half hours and spread out over three acts, what may have seemed significant on the page appears slight and inconsequential on stage.

John Wheelwright, the play's narrator, tells us in the opening moments, in a direct quote from Irving's novel, of his childhood friend's impact: "I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice - not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew ... but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany." Growing up in New Hampshire in the 1950s, John and Owen form an odd bond - but then, nearly everything about Owen is odd. His high, piercing voice and his short stature - in the opening scene, he's represented by a doll until the much-taller actor Doug Hara takes over - alienate nearly everyone in the small town. When the other children pick on Owen, it's John who comes to his defense. Soon the two boys are best friends, but John still finds Owen hard to understand. For one thing, Owen believes that he is "God's instrument," and has a vision in which he predicts the date and manner of his own death. And when he accidentally causes the death of John's beloved mother Tabitha, Owen forces John to doubt his own faith.

There's a lot to grapple with in Owen Meany, but the play gets tripped up by its self-conscious profundity. The boys discuss the Big Questions, never letting the viewers forget that they are watching Something Important. Owen insists that "everything has a purpose," leading to debates over nearly every event in the boys' lives. John's conclusion about how Owen validated his faith doesn't hold much logical water, but it sure seems deep, and in this show, that's all that matters.

Then there are the boys' interactions with the outside world. A long scene set at a Thanksgiving dinner seems intended to show off the townspeople as charmingly quirky, but there's a fine line between quirky and annoying, and the characters of Owen Meany cross it repeatedly. It doesn't help that the 600-page novel had to be so drastically cut down for the stage that many of the supporting characters seem to have little bearing on the protagonists' lives. For instance, Tabitha falls in love with a man named Dan; we learn that he's a teacher and a Harvard man, and he seems like a swell guy ... but then they get married, and we hardly ever see him again. We never learn what impact Dan has on his stepson's life, leaving his character dramatically pointless.

A Prayer For Owen Meany is ostensibly a comedy, but the serious themes overwhelm the comic ones. It doesn't help that the big comic set piece of act one, involving Owen playing the baby Jesus in a nativity pageant, falls completely flat. And late in act three, Owen grabs a microphone and a cigarette and stalks the stage doing what appears to be an imitation of a Lenny Bruce routine; it's unfunny and doesn't fit Owen's character.

Director Terrence J. Nolen gets much more impact out of the dramatic moments, especially a brutally powerful scene set at the funeral of a soldier killed in Vietnam.

The scenes involving Vietnam are among the few that merge drama and commentary well. In general, playwright Bent takes Irving's critiques of the social and political turmoil of the fifties and sixties and reduces them into overly broad swipes at some easy targets. (Boy, was Liberace a square - and so were the people who listened to him! Boy, was Nixon a jerk - and so were the people who voted for him!)

Part of the problem in the Arden's production is the vacuum in the two leading roles. Doug Hara never gives a hint of what makes the angry, sour Owen so endearing, while Ian Merrill Peakes is an agonized cipher as John. There is, however, uniformly excellent work from the supporting cast, especially Paul L. Nolan and Scott Greer as the town preachers, Anthony Lawton and Catharine K. Slusar as Owen's slow-witted parents, and Karen Peakes in a wonderfully warm performance as Tabitha.

The show does benefit from the Arden's usual top-notch production values, especially set designer Christopher Pickart's clever use of screens. And there's some striking staging from Nolen, especially in the tableaux that open two of the acts. But in general, this version of A Prayer For Owen Meany is flat, failing to convey the joy and sense of wonder that made Irving's novel such a success.

A Prayer For Owen Meany through Sunday, October 15, 2006 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $27 to $45 and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215.922.1122, online at or in person at the box office.

A Prayer For Owen Meany
A Novel By John Irving
Adapted by Simon Bent
Directed by Terrence J. Nolen
Assistant Director... Matthew Decker
Scenic Design... Christopher Pickart
Costume Design... Alison Roberts
Lighting Design ... Kenton Yeager
Sound Design... Jorge Cousineau
Puppet Design... Aaron Cromie
Stage Manager ... Francis deSales Brookes
Scenic Design... Lewis Folden
Costume Design... Alison Roberts
Lighting Design... John Stephen Hoey
Sound Design... Karin Graybash

Owen Meany... Doug Hara
John Wheelwright... Ian Merrill Peakes
Mrs. Meany, Mitzy Lish... Catharine K. Slusar
Lydia... Maureen Torsney-Weir
Reverend Merrill, Mr. Fish ... Scott Greer
Mr. Meany, Coach Chickering, Dr. Dolder... Anthony Lawton
Harriet Wheelwright... Mary Martello
Rector Wiggins, Chief Pike, Randy White, Jarvit Father... Paul L. Nolan
Tabitha Wheelwright, Nun... Karen Peakes
Dan Needham... Kevin Bergen
Mary Beth, Jarvit Daughter... Corinna Burns
Caroline, Jarvit Mother... Kristyn Chouiniere
Skipper, Jarvit Boy... Foster Cronin
Harold, Larry Lish, Major Rawls... David Raphaely
Barb Wiggins, Sam White... Janice Rowland

Photo: Mark Garvin

-- Tim Dunleavy

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