Adam Guettel’s song cycle, produced in concert format at the Public Theater in 1998 as Saturn Returns, has now been reconfigured, with added narrative material by director Elizabeth Lucas, under the title Myths and Hymns (West End Theater). The new title, ironically, points up the work’s central difficulty: The two disparate elements don’t fit well together.
Lucas has exercised some ingenuity in trying to weld the two kinds of songwriting in Guettel’s cycle into a single story, but her shoehorning effort has forced his highly individualized excursions into these disparate forms to fit into a constricting pattern: The confused and struggling seekers who embody the myths get constantly shoved back in line by the insistent demand for belief asserted or implied in the hymns. These days, when American Christianity has basically been turned into a form of political bullying, the resulting story seems all too familiar.
As staged, Lucas’s framework has its charms. The theater, an attic space above a church sanctuary, transforms easily into the attic of a seaside cottage; the audience enters to the soothingly regular crash of waves. Soon, events as well as waves turn stormier. An aging woman (Linda Balgord), selling the house and being moved into a home, wanders through the attic late at night and picks out of its storage boxes tiny objects that bring back memories: A toy horse summons a son’s daydream of Pegasus; an old locket brings back a lost love.
But the framework’s charm carries built-in flaws: a stop-and-start rhythm that means a lull whenever we return to the present; a saga in which everyone except the woman and her daughter (Anika Larsen) is a ghost, and all events are in the past. Given a loving but rigidly pious husband (Bob Stillman), a rebellious gay son (Lucas Steele), the daughter’s faithless lover (Matthew Farcher), and two visitants with multiple personalities (Ally Bonino and Donell James Foreman), you can probably guess the story from the characters. I need only note that “faithless lover” and “gay son” don’t constitute a clue. Both gender preferences end unhappily, natch.
The happier part is that a generally strong cast serves Guettel’s poignant, stinging songs handsomely. Larsen and Steele have particularly moving moments, while Stillman, with beautiful vocal tone and forceful presence, digs multiple dimensions from his rigidly defined role. (He gets my favorite of these songs, “Sisyphus.”) For all its limitations, the evening affirms the value of Guettel’s gift.