Small armies of figurines fill the carpeted living room where the dramatist Samuel D. Hunter sets his new play, The Healing: miniature busts clustering on tabletops, rows of dolls standing guard by the lamp and television, legions of tchotchkes looking on from
These assembled figures are an echo, of sorts, of the play’s larger action: a real-life gathering of old friends holding vigil in the wake of the suicide of a member of their group. Currently playing at Theatre Row in a production directed by Stella Powell-Jones, The Healing was commissioned by Theater Breaking Through Barriers, an Off-Broadway company dedicated to producing works that integrate artists with disabilities and artists without, and several of its members appear in The Healing. Hunter’s play contemplates the relationships between our physical and spiritual selves, and the damage that extremist thinking can perpetuate. Unfortunately — like the knickknacks stolidly crowding the living room — the heavy emotions remain, steady and unchanging, offering little chance for real revelation to characters or audience alike.
Sharon (Shannon DeVido), Laura (Mary Theresa Archbold), Donald (David Harrell), and Bonnie (Jamie Petrone) have all been acquainted since childhood, when they attended what was — from the sound of it — a cultish, emotionally abusive Christian Science summer camp in rural Idaho, near the small town where their fifth friend, Zoe (Pamela Sabaugh), lived until her recent death. The camp director, Joan (Lynne Lipton), inflicted lasting emotional harm on all of them, instructing disabled children that, Sharon recalls, “if we prayed hard enough Jesus would heal our broken little bodies.” (“Why did you guys keep going back every summer?” wonders Bonnie’s boyfriend, Greg, on hearing this tale of woe; the audience might wonder the same.)
After gaining some adult distance, the friends left Christian Science behind — and took action to get the camp shut down so that no other children would suffer as they had. That is, except for Zoe, whose need for faith only grew stronger with age. The adult Zoe received messages from angels that enjoined her to commit self-destructive acts, like ridding her refrigerator of food or suffering through strep throat without antibiotics. Eventually, depression trumped any comfort that spirituality gave her, and she curled up in a snowbank and allowed oblivion to take hold.
There’s plenty of fodder for contemplation here, but Hunter seems tentative about shaping it into drama. The friends, ostensibly camped out at Zoe’s place to sort and dispose of her possessions, make little progress on the task at hand, or in coming to terms with their confusion and grief. The two offstage figures exerting emotional power over the group — Zoe, recently dead, and Joan, a source of painful memories — both end up
appearing onstage (in flashbacks and a final confrontation, respectively), but neither moves the story in unexpected directions.
Hunter, an award-winning playwright, has probed similar subjects and themes — the dark shadows religion can cast, the
interplay between body and spirit — in other works (The Whale, A Bright New Boise). Here, examining the pitfalls of
extreme religious certainty, the writer himself seems surprisingly uncertain.
Directed by Stella Powell-Jones
The Clurman Theatre
410 West 42nd Street