LOCAL Theater Company's latest world premiere proves to be a timely examination of religious fanaticism, the nature of faith, and the gravity of love.
Simon (Em Grosland) is a 13-year old boy consumed with becoming G-d's messenger. His single mother, Theresa (Meridith C. Grundei), worries about his obsession, while her own fears cut off a budding relationship with Simon's guidance counselor, Owen (Leigh Nichols Miller). Simon beseeches G-d for the message he should deliver to humankind, but instead is visited by The Harbinger (Mare Trevathan), who redirects his thinking.
|Em Grosland as Simon|
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Every religion generates its share of extremism. Perhaps this is because human beings have not yet come to grips with the nature of the symbols that serve as their food for thought, and which often feed the tyranny of our ego and instincts.
While playwright James McLindon subtitles the story as a dark comedy, we wonder at times if it is a satire, given the funny and often hyperbolic pot shots it takes at religion, psychiatry, and education, or perhaps if it is part allegory, given some Brechtian moments.
|Meridith C. Grundei as Theresa|
Photo: Annabel Reader
In a world barely explicable via the best data available to the wisest among us, Theresa sends Simon to parochial school in the hopes that he will learn how to be an atheistic lapsed Catholic like herself. Simon, an exceptional student by everyone's accounts, adopts the liturgy and scripture for his own purposes:
"Make my enemies at school revere me, O Lord. Or at least fear me, for your servant should not be mocked and reviled."
While Simon wrestles with his self-perceived requirements for attaining prophet status, Theresa and Owen grapple with Simon's psychological state, complicated by analyses from school psychiatrists, as well as Simon's abnormal behavior. The outcome of these concerns drives a surprisingly sophisticated discussion, conducted in everyday language, of the convergence of psychological and spiritual states, which brings to mind the comparison of schizophrenia and spiritual rebirthing, by R.D. Laing in the 1970's, and which continues in some quarters today.
|Leigh Nichols Miller as Owen|
Photo: Michael Ensminger
McLindon sets up a very clever example of this dichotomy when Theresa recounts a story that one of the psychiatrists told her, about an everyday person who appears to have severe behavioral problems and turns out to be a well-recognized saint. Once the playwright gets us to see the problem without jumping to conclusions regarding highly idiosyncratic behaviors, we are then opened up to larger possibilities, including Simon seeing The Harbinger in the Walmart parking lot.
If this sounds crazy, it isn't, at least in a theatrical sense, since Owen and Theresa both see The Harbinger as well, just like Hamlet's vision of his father is verified by the soldiers on watch. In this case, Owen and Theresa are induced by The Harbinger to forget their experience, much like the magic herb from A Midsummer-Night's Dream is used to make the lovers forget their predispositions and past actions.
So, The Harbinger is literally a deus ex machina that allows the comedy to ask larger questions about G-d and deliver a thoughtful message about taking responsibility for our own actions, rather than quoting literally from a book to justify whatever we want.
|Mare Trevathan as The Harbinger|
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Despite the sophistication of the ideas underlying the story, the action, including the vision of The Harbinger, is normal for any city on this planet. Director Pesha Rudnick keeps the story accessible, while adding subtle layers that provide access to larger questions, including the casting of Grosland, a transgender actor, as Simon, and a mirror image set reversal in the second act.
Grosland finds a convincing seam where Simon-the-obstinate-teenager meets Simon-the-ambitious-prophet-in-waiting, each feeding the other. Grundei provides a surfeit of comic relief with her deadpan but quick-witted Theresa, tossing off effortless zingers. Miller tunes into a natural streak of geniality and fully inhabits what The Harbinger prescribes—being a good man—breathing life into an indefinable, but recognizable quality. Trevathan's Harbinger bears the responsibility of the world on her shoulders, yet carries herself regally while exuding the authority of a being of immense power.
Contemporary events provide endless examples of pseudo leaders who, whether claiming a higher moral ground through "religion" or claiming an enlightened consciousness through "science," are, in the end, representing nothing more than their own will and that of their masters. McLendon wisely offers us another alternative: our own goodness and willingness to love.
LOCAL Theater Company's world premiere presentation of Faith, by James McLindon runs through December 6th. For tickets: https://tickets.thedairy.org/Online/FAITH.