Prophet and loss; a parable
Ensemble Theatre brings John Irving's Owen Meany to Pacific stage
Less than a year after their brilliant world premiere of Bar Mitzvah Boy, director Ian Farthing and the Ensemble Theatre Company return to Pacific Theatre’s church-basement stage with A Prayer for Owen Meany, another tragicomedy about a trial-by-ordeal of religious faith.
Except this time, the spiritually challenging message has to bear the weight of a far bulkier apparatus. It’s adapted (by Simon Bent) from a picaresque 637-page John Irving novel, sort of a cross between The Tin Drum and The Pilgrim’s Progress. The action spans the “swinging” 1960’s, a time of bipolar turmoil in its American locale, starting with New Frontier idealism and then sinking into a quagmire of Vietnam War disillusionment.
It’s a turbulent personal coming-of-age decade, too, for the play’s two protagonists, the title character (Chris Lam) and his best – or, rather, only – friend, John (Ensemble Theatre artistic director Tariq Leslie). We track them from their pre-teens to their early 20’s. That’s a fraught passage for anyone, but all the more so for Owen as he retains his 10-year-old stature and piercing falsetto voice while growing apace in libido and intellect.
Nor are those his only peculiarities. Born (by immaculate conception) to a pair of loveless, cheerless lumpen parents, Owen is imbued with an unalloyed theistic faith that brooks no moral or religious cant. Embedding himself in John’s family, his prophetic purity turns him into a self-professed and fatefully transformative “instrument of God” in the blueblood lives around him.
Vivid dreams reveal to him beyond the shadow of any doubt the exact date, time and manner of his own salvific death. The whole holy-boly package proves altogether a bit much to take for his rural hometown or the equally parochial milieu of the U.S. Army’s mortuary service, where Owen’s pacifist principles lead him during the Vietnam build-up.
Owen could be bit much, too, for an uninitiated theatre audience to digest – a persona so surreal he verges on the grotesque, with his screechy voice, dwarfish body language and profanely sanctimonious perorations. The character’s utter strangeness is, if anything, emphasized by costume designer Julie White’s pointedly elfin Buster Brown togs, and by the stage set, which perches him atop a gigantic mock-up of an oaken schoolroom chair.
Yet Lam steers the role clear of caricature, in a testimonial to both his acting and his vocal chops (he’s trained in musical theatre). In the opening night after party, looking none the worse for wear after his two hour tour de force, he relates (in a normal, even modest, post-pubescent male speaking voice) that performing Owen is like singing an extended counter-tenor solo.
And, indeed, some of his speeches, especially in the latter scenes, take on an almost operatic eloquence. So do Leslie’s, in the role of John. He serves as the play’s narrator, cementing the numerous flashback scenes into place with historic context and hindsight reminiscence.
Yet Leslie also manages to convincingly project a pre-teen schoolboy in Act One – no mean feat, for an actor “of a certain age,” and all the more impressive considering that he only stepped into the role a little over a week before opening night when the originally cast co-star had to drop out.
Equally versatile were the 15 other players in the cast, many of them appearing in multiple roles to fill out Irving’s rather ornate story line. First rate performers, all, whose professionalism kept them from upstaging the axial pair at the heart of the drama. And Farthing blocks the stage action so smoothly as to alleviate any impression of overcrowding.