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If you notice nothing else about the three-act, three-hour American epic sprawling across the Round House Theatre’s Bethesda stage—and make no mistake, there’s plenty to catch the eye (to say nothing of the ear) in Blake Robison’s rousing, handsome staging of A Prayer for Owen Meany—notice how thoroughly the director has conquered the space.
And I do mean “conquered.” I’m not the only theatergoer in town, or even the only one at this newspaper, come to think of it, to grouse about the barnlike acoustics of the tall, broad hall on East-West Highway. Even when the noises aren’t disagreeably off, the sheer size of the place can be hazardous to the health of an oughta-be-intimate play. (The Retreat From Moscow, anyone?)
This time, though, Robison has managed to make the expansive stage serve his expansive story without sacrificing a whit of the strange intimacy that’s so crucial to the story’s central relationship. Teenagers fly and angels descend, dust trickles from 30-foot rafters and—is that a forklift, for heaven’s sake? And then, with not much more than a shift of the light and a stick or two of furniture, he conjures sons and mothers at Thanksgiving, and husbands and wives at one another’s throats, and old ladies and children watching Liberace on a lazy evening, cozy as cats. It’s a small triumph, the way Robison works this big room.
The story, if you’ve forgotten your John Irving—or if, like me, you never quite got around to reading all 672 pages in the first place—centers on a charismatically strange young man with a piercing voice and a conviction that he’s God’s instrument on earth. Owen Meany is a latter-day messiah who’ll cause a death before the second act is over and trade his own life to save more than one other before the final curtain falls; the accidents, or the inevitabilities, of his existence first destroy and then resurrect the faith of the story’s narrator (Ian Kahn’s nicely vulnerable John Wheelwright). Simon Bent’s adaptation, in keeping, I assume, with the tone of the novel, manages to be both unblushingly profane and unabashedly intoxicated by the possibility of the sacred.
Those qualities find an insistent, irascible prophet in the person of Robison’s superbly off-kilter Owen—the perfectly ordinary-looking Matthew Detmer, given a gloriously oddball overhaul with an albino’s coloring and outsized ears. With a pug’s aggressive posture (Irving’s Owen, remember, is so small his classmates pick him up just for giggles) and a piercing falsetto (his vocal cords are damaged, or underdeveloped, or just unprecedented), Detmer anchors the production with a performance as unusually confident as it is confidently unusual. And the cast around him, totaling 16 in all, turn in tastily idiosyncratic portrayals—John Lescault’s stammering, doubt-plagued Rev. Merrill and the deliciously crabbed Mr. and Mrs. Meany of Lawrence Redmond and Kimberly Schraf are but three examples—that never threaten the substantial integrity of the myth-sized whole.
The one glaringly false note comes at the story’s blockbuster climax, when all the foreboding and foreshadowing pays off in a four-second eternity, an endless instant of heart-stopping grace and grief. It’s the apotheosis of Owen Meany, and Robison stages it with one genius choice (a ridiculously apt bit of song scoring) and one ghastly miscalculation (an overchoreographed, underwhelming slo-mo variation on a trick we’ve already seen once too often). What could be a gut-punch comes off as a grotesquely silly bit of playacting, and a three-hour evening almost comes entirely undone.
Only almost, though, because Kahn’s narrator steps into the light again, and the darkness passes, and the night’s outlandish images stretch out in memory’s cavalcade behind him. Their collective power reasserts itself in a rush, as he begs for one more glimpse of the surpassingly strange boy who inspired them all—and you find yourself hoping, knowing it can’t be, that his prayer might be answered.
Try not to drink too much, Miss Rose,” says the pigtailed pre-adolescent, ever so sweetly: “Mother says it makes you promiscuous.”
Yep: Playwright Morris Panych has a little one-liner problem, on the evidence of the charmingly silly Girl in the Goldfish Bowl, but his one-liners are by and large snappy enough that I for one don’t mind his tendency to overindulge.
Charmingly silly is a pretty good summation of Gregg Henry’s MetroStage production, too, though we probably ought to throw in a bit of bittersweet while we’re at it. The happy news is that while Panych overstuffs his quirky little black comedy with melancholic subplots about domestic desperation and damaged goods—there’s a boozy old spinster, a loveless couple barely bothering to go through the motions, and a mysterious, malfunctioning stranger who can’t quite seem to remember what he’d probably rather forget—Henry’s cast manages to create an honest, even an eloquent set of portraits out of characters who could easily be mere sketches.
At the center of Panych’s sadly witty whirl is Susan Lynskey’s pert, precocious Iris, 11 years old and far too smart—though how wise she is remains to be seen, given her conviction that that stranger (a hilariously twitchy Michael Russotto) is the reincarnation of her recently deceased goldfish. That conviction, which will hold up for a surprisingly long while in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, may have something to do with Iris’ powerlessness to fix the heartache she can see all too clearly in the lives of her parents: Mom (a wary, antsy Kathleen Coons) never really loved Dad (a dazed and dubious Bobby Smith), but he’s never stopped loving her, and if Iris senses somehow that she can’t hold them together forever, maybe we can forgive her for imagining that her finned friend might come back from the beyond to help.
There’s no real help to be had, miraculously revived fish or not, but there are a couple of red herrings and an unwieldy switchback or three—not to mention a late and unsteady swerve toward the lurid, an unsettling stagger in the direction of sunsets and happy endings, and an abrupt yank of the rug, just when exasperation begins to set in, back the other way. But Henry’s players come at all this folderol with utter conviction, in a style that’s both thoroughly committed and just the tiniest bit heightened.
Or most of them do, anyway: Susan Ross plays the hard-drinking Miss Rose about half a tone lower than the pitch everyone else is tuned to, which can be a little jarring. What the others seem to understand is that Girl in the Goldfish Bowl is a farce at heart, if ultimately an oddly sober one—so their deadly serious take seems precisely right, and their show turns out to be the sweetest, saddest, funniest thing I’ll forget before the end of the week.CP