I remember reading Something Happened—Joseph Heller’s 800-page novel about a doting father and the child he loves too much—and wondering for some 770 of its pages whether the titular Something would indeed happen. Then it did, ending the book on a note so devastating that, for a time, I could barely function. With the book still in hand, I took a cup from a kitchen cabinet, glanced up at the clock, then down at the faucet, then back at the clock. More than two hours had passed.
I’m reminded of this by the penultimate scene of Heather McDonald’s evanescent new play, An Almost Holy Picture, which also concerns an overprotective father and a catastrophe. To get to the third of McDonald’s four scenes, her sole onstage character—gardener Samuel Gentle—has spent the better part of 90 minutes evocatively mulling over the experiences that shaped his idea of God: a seaside walk with his father when he was an adolescent, a horrific desert accident that led him to give up the ministry, and the birth he unabashedly calls “a miracle” of his daughter Ariel, who emerged from her mother’s womb covered with a downy fuzz that caught the light and gave her whole body a halo. Doctors later told Samuel that this fine, golden fur resulted from an endocrine condition, and would require a lifetime of shaving several times a week. “Not 10 minutes pass that I don’t think about hair,” he murmurs. But in his memory, Ariel’s birth still reverberates as uncomplicatedly joyous. Now a precocious 9-year-old, she gives his life purpose.
Then, just moments before the end of An Almost Holy Picture, Samuel tells us of an event of his own making that has altered the shape of their world and of his faith. It’s an event—at once cruel and indicative of profound love—for which McDonald has prepared us with subtlety and eloquence, none of which makes it one whit less devastating. It’s also an event so laden with religious symbolism, and articulated by actor Jerry Whiddon with such pain and bewilderment, that an already ethereal evening is propelled into active flight.
On opening night, when Samuel—who describes himself as being “possessed of the habit of reverence”—talked of seeing physical evidence of the “almost holy” nature of his daughter’s innocence, the moment had the sort of theatrical electricity that contemporary audiences associate with neo-mythic plays like Equus. Earlier, Samuel had noted that “a father’s love is a fairly spectacular thing.” Patrons will take the play’s climax as visceral—not to mention irrefutable—proof of that.
Alas, unlike Heller, who was content in Something Happened to leave his readers puddled on the floor, McDonald feels compelled to offer the audience an out. Her final sequence—a sort of coda that lets Samuel speak in elegiac tones of the tough row he’ll now have to hoe (“winter is the gardener’s holiest time”)—is a miscalculation, even if it allows patrons to stumble from the theater without dissolving in sobs. It’s entirely understandable that she’d want to show her protagonist trundling on to a recovery of sorts, since An Almost Holy Picture has been concerned from its first passages with the faith and mental gymnastics that allow people to survive loss, but it’s also dramatically misguided. The Greeks, loving tragedy, would have let him stew. (Of course, they’d also have called the play A Holy Picture.)
Cavils about this brief coda notwithstanding, every aspect of Jeff Davis’ staging is exemplary. Whiddon’s solo performance, devoid of actorish tricks and increasingly mesmeric as the evening progresses, is flat-out perfect—nothing “almost” about it. And the production that surrounds him is equally vivid, from the flagstones and rich earth James Kronzer has built into its cyclorama-backed setting, to the twilights and moonrises so effectively evoked by lighting designer Jos. B. Musumeci Jr. Their efforts don’t just ground the play in reality, they also serve to enhance the eloquence of McDonald’s monologue, allowing a contemplative, philosophical evening to assert itself in an enormously active, even suspenseful way.
The glee in any production of Leonard Bernstein’s musical, Candide, isn’t in what happens, it’s in how cleverly and rapidly it can be made to happen, and therein lies the chief problem with Arena Stage’s grandly colorful, elaborately fussy, expensive-looking revival.
“Do you think they could do it any slower?” moaned an adolescent patron at the final preview’s intermission, voicing a concern that will surely occur to anyone who’s heard the show’s myriad recordings. The real trouble, though, has less to do with musical director George Fulginiti-Shakar’s lackluster tempos than with the acoustical problems that force them. By the second song—Dr. Pangloss’ explication that all is for the best in “The Best of All Possible Worlds”— it’s clear that deciphering lyrics in the round is going to be serious work, especially in the operatic parodies that are the chief attractions of Leonard Bernstein’s score. Choral numbers in musicals always turn to mush, but here, the only time an audience can really kick its feet up and relax is when the performers are doing the same thing: during the ballads.
Fortunately, the staging is reasonably boisterous, with cast members clambering frenetically over Zack Brown’s M.C. Escher–inspired, best-of-all-possible sets, with its geometrically improbable domes, staircases painted on flat runways, and floorboards peppered with plexiglass windows that seem to open onto subterranean skies. Also trapdoors. Everywhere.
Brown’s contribution is the biggest difference between the current Candide and the one it’s trying to top. For make no mistake about it, what has been reconstituted at Arena isn’t just the musical itself, but Douglas C. Wager’s “wondrous toy chest” staging of it. That characterization comes from David Richards’ enthusiastic 1983 rave in the Post, which propelled the end-of-season show through extension after extension for almost four months. Truth be told, Richards has never been all that keen a judge of musicals (remember the hats-in-the-air endorsement he gave the tacky kiddie show, Raggedy Ann?…well, some very sorry Broadway producers do) and for all his proselytizing, the 1983 version wasn’t quite the “frisky, hill-and-dale gambol” he described. The new Candide actually qualifies as an improvement in several respects—it’s brighter, frothier, and has better matched leads (sweet-voiced Paul Binotto improving on his own ’83 performance in the title role, and Rebecca Baxter as his chirpily avaricious Cunegonde)—but it’s still not as light on its feet as it should be.
That’s a problem, because the evening’s plot is just as repetitive as that of the slender Voltaire volume it’s based on. Basically, Dr. Pangloss (a cackling Richard Bauer, also repeating from ’83) teaches his pupils that in God’s universe everything must be for the best, and the universe then contradicts him steadily, visiting volcanos, lost buttocks, rapes, earthquakes, and the Spanish Inquisition on characters who are determined to see virtue in every holocaust. Wager comes up with some dandy tricks along the way—a jungle-in-an-umbrella that plagues Candide is hilarious—but his inspiration flags during production numbers, and he has only produced about half as many gags as the material requires.
On the other hand, he’s gotten some deliciously flaky performances, not just from his leads, but from members of the ensemble. Duke Ellington grad David St. Louis shines nearly as brightly during a couple of flashy dance parades as he did in Bessie’s Blues last year at Studio Theater. Merwin Foard is fetching in Carmen Miranda drag and manages to suggest subversively that his torments at the hands of pirates, sultans, and monks aren’t entirely horrific. And Karyn Quackenbush makes ever-available Paquette into a brightly appealing tease. And given the imagination Dana Krueger throws at the single-buttocked old lady’s signature number, the fact that it still sits there like the lump it’s always been suggests that we might as well write it off as unplayable.
All of which adds up to a production that works hard, but that ultimately glitters more than it