There is a sense in the theater, at the very beginning of Marlane Meyer’s new play, The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters, that this is a show in which anything might happen. It’s a matter of set design, probably — here we are, in a low scrabbly wood on the outskirts of an unnamed town in the western United States, surrounded by birds, feral cats, raccoons, some lower varmints, many more animals than we can see. But we can hear them, sniffing and snuffling and cooing, occasionally snarling in the brush. The scene is twilit, the landscape foggy and indistinct. And — is that stuffed raccoon staring at me? Are the stagehands wearing shamanic animal masks?
Then, crashbangboom, The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters is happening. A man has killed his wife, who’s lying stiffly on the ground, and the man’s mother, a white-trash-cartoon-monster-lady with immense hair, is screaming: “I told you to just let that slut GOOO, Calvin! Didn’t I! I said to let that slut GOOO to HELL on her OOOWN! But you had to chase her down, and NOW LOOK WHAT!”
A few seconds later, in a very different scene, we meet an 18-year-old girl with a limp who had intended to marry Jesus Christ, but who’s now fallen for an alcoholic, chronically unemployed illiterate with a violent streak. And we’re off!
What we’re off on is a rousing, confounding, otherworldly tragicomedy composed of (and this is not an exclusive list) recurring motifs of Catholic saints and animal spirits; profound meditations on the purposes and costs of sex and marriage; hagiography; political sloganeering; murder; an examination of the destruction of the American working class; discussions of domestic abuse; and a tale of a good woman’s quest to redeem a very bad man.
That’s a lot of stuff to fit into a play. Maybe too much. (The political sloganeering, in particular, often serves no obvious purpose.) But, in this Playwrights Horizons production, there’s something very special about watching a writer, a director (Lisa Peterson), and a fine company knowingly working above their heads. The play’s six actors portray 17 characters with a gonzo intensity that’s sometimes scary, usually funny, and always exhilarating.
Laura Heisler and Rob Campbell are the only thespians restricted to playing single characters, and they play the shit out of ’em. Heisler’s Dr. Aubrey Lincoln has returned home to open a free clinic and find a man; Heisler plays her as half sweetly naïve Catholic girl, half rampaging bridezilla-to-be. Her entire performance is a violent tug-of-war between altruism and a carnivorous hunger to mate. Campbell, as the wife-killer Calvin Little, is surprisingly soulful; he’s a bad dude bewildered and saddened by his badness.
The other actors — Haynes Thigpen, Jacqueline Wright, Danny Wolohan, and Candy Buckley — are thoroughly marvelous. At one point, Wright made me snort laughter loudly enough to draw a look from an usher. Buckley’s physical instincts are perfect. She can do powerfully funny things with a hand, an arm, a toothy smile, a syllable elongated unto absurdity.
Meyer writes a great deal about sex and brutality, and about women who are victimized by brutish men. She writes humanely, but she isn’t at all politically correct. See, for example, the white-trash-cartoon-monster-lady (Buckley) from the first scene, whose many minutes of stage time are a bravura act of class minstrelsy — she’s a hillbilly catastrophe whose drunken dissolution we are encouraged to laugh at. In a late scene, she explains her decision to vote Republican by raising a scrawny arm and slurring: “It’s the party of my people!”
The joke gets laughs in New York. It might play differently in towns more like the one depicted onstage. Or maybe it wouldn’t. This is, after all, a story with a devout Catholic for a protagonist; a young woman who, like her creator, manages to find delight, humor, and something lovable in even the vilest human beings. That should play well everywhere.