An Almost Holy Picture by Heather McDonald is a spiritual quest by a man seeking solace and meaning when he’s beset with tragedy and misfortune. The Rep Stage production is a quiet, reflective story featuring Michael Stebbins in a touching solo performance, who does what he can with what he’s got, but in the end, you’re left wondering if it’s worth the journey.
Stebbins plays Samuel Gentle, the church groundskeeper, a mild, sweet and endearing gentleman who relates several life-changing events as episodes, including hearing the voice of God giving solace and direction. The first event which is cataclysmic and sets the tone for the entire piece involves the death of several children in a school bus accident. Gentle describes the playful gathering of twenty children, highlighting one particular athletic child, and everyone’s cheerful bantering as they set out on their trip. A bizarre turn of events caused the bus to suddenly swerve and flip over into a ditch where nearly half of them drowned in a small pool of water that had gathered in a ravine—an exceedingly rare condition in the deserts of New Mexico. All of the details are quietly told, even the reaction of the parents and adults was mild—no screaming anguish, just a quiet acceptance of God’s will for these little angels to be taken. Maybe that’s where the production lost me.
The writing is quite good as can be expected of a Pulitzer Prize nominee, the pacing is gentle and rhythmic filled with enchanting rituals, and the characters are all beautifully portrayed and sympathetic, but there’s just not enough to hold one’s interest in rapt attentiveness as the story unfolds. For example, some sections are too sweetly self-indulgent. And I can’t understand why the quiet tale is bludgeoned into a two-act format—there just isn’t enough there to warrant a return for the second act. Director Tony Tsendeas, who so wonderfully set the hysterical paces in Wittenberg, ends the first episode with such finality that it felt like a merciful end to Act one, only for the actor to re-emerge for the rest of the Act. It didn’t help that it happened again at the end of the 3rd segment that ended in awkward, hesitant applause, only for the actor to re-enter.
The second Act tells the travails of the couple after they relocated to Massachusetts and finally have a baby after several heart-wrenching miscarriages – an unfeeling physician, a woman, labeled the wife’s condition as abortion-inducing. As can be expected, the adorable baby girl comes with her own set of challenges which anchor the dramatic thrust of the rest of the play (derived from a story “The Hairy Little Girl”), including the title.
Gentle and his wife stoically accept the child’s rare condition and perform the rituals necessary to provide as wholesome a life for her as possible, all while aching with anxious concern for her emotional well-fare. Even when the girl grows up and strikes out on her own, she is never far from her father’s tender thoughts of love and care for her. Eventually, the issues in the play come full circle, analogous to the round space in the center of the set, where Gentle is able to take long contemplative walks, and dig into a flower bed, another quiet contemplative act. The athletic student injured in the bus accident “with a hole where his eye used to be” ended up a premiere javelin tosser, known for wearing a tee-shirt that says, “s- happens.” There is comfort in witnessing the acceptance of what life throws at you, no matter what, and this production gives loving attention to the details with heart and spirit.
The design elements work together for a show that urges steadfast acceptance of what is, along with a bit of introspection. The set design by James Fouchard contributes to the sense of a hallowed space with the tall, monolithic structures stage right and the curved beams meeting like church arches stage left. Lights by Jay Herzog deliver a primrose hue or subdued shadows to the set, or spectacular glow to reflect and complement the emotional aspects of the passages.
This is a well-meaning production with a quiet and gentle manner, and Stebbins gets a chance to shine in the radiant glow of telling a story filled with life-affirming lessons and sayings from the Bishop. The scenes have titles which are manifest in the play such as—“A Sigh too Deep for Words,” and “Offering of Daily Obligation,” like pastoral passages. Having premiered in 1995 and subsequently produced on Broadway shortly after September 11, 2001, the play has keeping power and resonates with survivors and walking wounded in the shell-shocked aftermath of pain. Just be aware that in this production, when Stebbins exits the stage several times during the show, he’ll be returning to share more of an Almost Holy Picture.
An Almost Holy Picture
By Heather McDonald
Directed by Tony Tsendeas
Produced by Rep Stage
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Running time: 2 hrs, 15 mins; with one intermission