Produced by Round House Theatre
By: Fiona Zublin
A Prayer for Owen Meany is a monumental book (by prolific novelist John Irving), and its 600 pages would seem to be an impossibly candidate for adaptation. First of all, there is its daunting length-and even more intimidating is its beloved status in American culture. If one tries to adapt A Prayer for Owen Meany, one had better do it well.
Round House Theatre (Bethesda) has taken a chance, and I’m glad they did.
Matthew Detmer gives a stunning performance as Owen Meany, a profane and deeply religious young man with a voice like a slide whistle. Detmer’s perfect comic timing and terrifying prosthetic ears take him in the minds of an audience from an off-putting presence to an unlikely Christ figure.
Owen Meany is what matters; everyone else fades into the background. The narrator of his story is John Wheelwright (an ineffectual Ian Kahn), whose family and hometown was indelibly affected by Owen. The rest of the company comprises the “American Gothic”-esque town which doesn’t even pretend to be wholesome but is instead has a spare and strange take on Americana. Notable are Lawrence Redmond, as Owen’s tough talking father, and Kathryn Kelley as a rector’s wife whose dresses match her husband’s vests. Kate Turner-Walker’s costumes are striking and often whimsical, and James Kronzer’s set captures the dark satire of small-town America with which A Prayer for Owen Meany is infused.
For those new to Owen’s story, it is mesmerizing. With a deep connection to Owen’s Catholicism and the straight-talking sense of humor that marks all John Irving’s novels, Englishman Simon Bent has taken an intrinsically American and seemingly impossible to adapt novel and turned it into a complex and engaging-if overlong-theatrical experience.
The third act unfortunately devolves into a series of striking but ultimately hollow theatrical statements. Any three-hour play has to be fascinating to the end, and this one is not. Owen Meany loses audience interest during its home stretch, but it perks up to deliver the inevitable conclusion-for no-one could resist finding out how Owen’s story ends.
A Prayer for Owen Meany plays at Round House Theater (4545 East-West Highway Bethesda, MD) Sept 13 – Oct 8 Wednesday thru Saturday evenings with Saturday and Sunday matinees. Tickets: $25-55. For reservations, call 240 644-1100 or purchase tickets online:http://www.roundhousetheatre.org/.