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A CurtainUp Review
A Prayer for Owen Meany

Ian Merrill Peakes as John Wheelright
Initially the sparse look and self conscious arrangements of people reminded me of nothing so much as last year’s acclaimed yet oppressive Arden production of Winesburg, Ohio. But after its slow and stilted first act Owen Meany won me over.

Readers of John Irving’s novel will recall that Christian martyr Owen Meany possesses a rock-solid Flannery O’Connor–like faith, and believes that everything in his life has meaning and will converge in something important that he must do. Teeny weeny Owen Meany (Doug Hara) lives with his odd, working class parents in Gravesend, NH, and every time there is blasting in their nearby granite quarry, dust filters down on them from their living room ceiling. Owen’s best friend, John Wheelwright (Ian Merrill Peakes), lives with his mother (Karen Peakes) and her well-to-do mother (Mary Martello) in the same town, and both boys have paternity issues. At a Little League game Owen inadvertently kills John’s mother, whom he loves, with a hard-driven foul ball. Yet the boys remain close.

John’s reminiscences provide the primary narrative frame. One of the strengths of Simon Bent’s script is that it gives necessary information while avoiding the trap of over-narrating. Although it is inevitable that the script would lack the texture and scope of Irving’s long novel, it stands on its own merits, which is quite a feat. For the most part this adaptation overcomes fear of cropping, providing a scan of the original and moving forward with bold strokes, even new material. With its foreshadowing and motifs of love, friendship, determinism, faith and death, this is a well-realized and --by the second act-- increasingly compelling production. Absolute truth be told, though, it is still too long and could lose a few characters, half an hour, and an intermission.

After the opening scenes the story moves quickly and comes alive with its families, Episcopalians, and a doubting Congregationalist clergyman Rev. Merrill (well done by Scott Greer). Terrence J. Nolen directs a mix of natural and stylized acting. The whole cast is, of course, wonderful. Karen Peakes is a lovely, understated Tabitha Wheelwright and The Meany parents played by Anthony Lawton and Catharine K. Slusar are a perfectly balanced peculiar pair. Leads Ian Merrill Peakes as John and Doug Hara as Owen Meany turn in exceptional work.

In a memorable sequence two plays intersect: the Christ-echoing Owen is the baby Jesus in the grade school Nativity pageant (interesting, when you consider a paternity issue that will be aired later). He is, in the same scene, the final ghost in A Christmas Carol. As Owen freaks out over a premonitory vision, Scrooge (Greer) humorously stalls, performing lines from other well known works. Later in the new school director’s office-- dominated by pictures of Jung, Hitler, and Christ-- Owen catches hell for propositioning the Mrs. Robinsonesque mother of a classmate. The Vietnam War connection comes across loud and clear. But a less effective stand-up routine on "o-ver-sim-pli-fi-cation" with reverberations for the present, performed by a uniformed Owen smoking a cigarette, seems shoehorned into the production.

In the end events tie together and refer back to the opening when John explained that his friend who killed his mother was responsible for his belief in God. By now we have seen how he came to believe that Owen Meany’s life was a miracle.

Initially the set appears to be composed entirely of large panels and scrims of painted gray, cloudy skies. However, several surprising elements emerge as Christopher Pickart’s set design multitasks masterfully through the many consecutive and concurrent scenes. My only wish would be that it could have incorporated more diagonals into its essentially squared off, front-facing horizontality. Kenton Yeager’s excellent lighting, Cousineau’s musical composition and sound design, and the fine costumes contribute to the Nolen-precise, satisfying theatricality of A Prayer for Owen Meany.

A Prayer for Owen Meany
Adaptation by Simon Bent from the novel by John Irving
Directed by Terrence J. Nolen
Cast: Ian Merrill Peakes, Janice Rowland, Foster Cronin, Kristyn Chouiniere, Corinna Burns, David Raphaely, Doug Hara, Mary Martello, Karen Peakes, Anthony Lawton, Catharine K. Slusar, Paul L. Nolan, Scott Greer, Maureen Torsney-Weir, Kevin Bergen
Scenic Design: Christopher Pickart
Lighting Design: Kenton Yeager
Composer and Sound Design: Jorge Cousineau
Costume Design: Alison Roberts Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with two 10 minute intermissionsT
he Arden's F. Otto Haas Stage. 09/14/06 – 10/15/06
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 9/20 performance.

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