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A CurtainUp Review
An Almost Holy Picture
A father's love is a spectacular thing
--- Samuel Gentle, a father who comes to realize that his spectacuar love for his young daughter does not prevent him from inflicting the pain from which he has tried to shelter her.
Kevin Bacon
Kevin Bacon
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
He's still got the snub nose and the hint of a twinkle in his eyes. But don't expect him to dance (shades of Footloose) or sing (as half of the touring Bacon Brothers band). He enters the earth covered stage of the American Airlines Theater not with the bounce you might expect, but with the measure steps to befit his role as a reflective middle aged man, aptly named Samuel Gentle. It's a demanding role. Mr. Bacon must speak not only for Samuel but all the people pivotal to his lengthy journey of coming to grips with a world in which parents are helpless to prevent innocent children from being killed or cruelly flawed. One such tragedy, the death of nine children in a school bus accident, cause Samuel Gentle to abandon the New Mexico Episcopal church where he was a priest to become the groundskeeper at a Massachusetts cathedral.

The character of this spiritual seeker presents Mr. Bacon with ample opportunity to prove that his abilities as a stage actor have not rusted but have, in fact, matured. By wisely resisting opportunities to ham up Gentle's most emotional memories or to play the humorous observations for big laughs, the actor makes us like and care about Samuel. That's no small feat considering that even he can't alter the fact that An Almost Holy Picture, despite winning the prestigious Kesselring Prize and a number of award-winning regional productions, is basically an overextended monologue without sufficient drama or new insights to make a lasting impression -- even in the light of current events which have made all of us more sensitive to faith-testing tragedy.

That's not to say that Heather McDonald's script is without observations that strike a lasting chord. There's the haunting reflection on how Samuel's New Mexican parishioners , instead of being pulled together by the accident that killed their children, stand isolated in their grief. Samuel's instant love affair with the daughter born to him and his anthropologist wife Miriam (biblical names abound) after "a trinity of miscarriages" and the sleepwalking episodes triggered by his dreams about her affliction epitomize the theatricality possible in one-person playwriting. Also noteworthy is the balance between amusement and pain stemming from his wife's playing in an amateur production of The Glass Menagerie -- amusement as she talks like Amanda even at home, and the pain of seeing his own young daughter in the character of Laura Wingfield. The daughter's incurable condition of having her face and body covered with fine blonde hair also brings some powerful descriptions of the twice-a-week family ritual of shaving her.

Unfortunately, these pluses are offset by the transparency of the metaphors, from the names -- the gentle Samuel Gentle, the non-comfort giving Church of the Holy Comforter to the garden metaphors seeded by Samuel's job. The pretentious program headings for the two parts of each act and the predictable epiphany add to the negatives.

To make the most of the best the play has to offer we have the outstanding staging under Michael Mayer's direction. Mr. Mayer has done everything possible to create the aura of a full-bodied play. He makes it easy for Mr. Bacon animate his narrative but makes sure there's not too much busyness. His crafts team has succeeded admirably in lifting the play above the bare stage aura that typifies many one-person shows. Mark Wendland's dirt covered hillside evokes the desert of Samuel's spirit and since water is a recurring religious symbol the set also has a long pool of water at the foot of the stage. (As water is a symbolic leitmotif, so is hair -- which no doubt accounts for the choice of Ariel's affliction). Kevin Adams' lighting is stunning, transforming the sky in back of that barren hillside into some visually stunning, mood-changing images.

Since Bacon is undoubtedly the big draw for this limited run, readers should note the schedule of the remaining once a week performances featuring John Dossett, an actor with solid credentials though unknown to me. With or without Bacon, and the topnotch production values and often lovely writing notwithstanding, An Almost Holy Picture simply isn't as profound as it aims to be.

Written by Heather McDonald
Directed by Michael Mayer.
Starring Kevin Bacon as Samuel Gentle. John Dossett remaining appearances in the title role March 3, 10, 17, 24 and 31 and Wednesday matinees on February 13 and 20).
Set Design: Mark Wendland
Costume Design: Michael Krass
Lighting Design: Kevin Adams
Sound Design:Scott Myers with Robert Kaplowitz
Original Music and design by Mitch Greenhill Running Time: 2 hours, including one 15-minute intermission
American Airlines Theatre 227 West 42nd Street, 212/719-1300
1/18/02-4/07/02; opening 2/07/02.
Tuesday - Saturday @8PM; Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday @2PM - $40 - $65
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 2/08/02 performance
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