“Oversimplification!” is what Owen Meany (Jessica Miller ’15) says is wrong with society in this year’s freshman show, a rendition of “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” But “Oversimplification” is not what you would say when describing the titular novel or play.
The story deals with a grown and depressed John Wheelwright’s (Tim Creavin ’15) reflections on his dearest friend Owen Meany — who believed he was God’s instrument — and their childhood in a heavily religious small town in New Hampshire before and during the Vietnam War. John shares with us how Owen led him to regain his faith in God.
I didn’t go to the Yale Rep with the most open mind. The story of Owen Meany — in book and in stage — is all over the place with rants on religion and no acknowledgement of chronological order.
But this production makes the tale not only bearable but enjoyable. This cast brings in humor to better grapple with the serious subjects, such as faith, organized religion, war and sexuality, that are approached.
Miller accomplished the ultimate. She had us forget she was a girl, for one. On stage, she turned into a self-righteous and at times horny little boy with a strange voice and a blood-curdling scream.
But let’s be clear: not even Miller’s notable performance could make transparent Owen Meany’s rants, which are at times exasperating. His personality is ideological, political and theological, and at one point he even breaks the fourth wall. This moment is powerfully delivered but feels out of place, like a few scenes throughout the play.
Another scene which had me asking “Is this really happening?” occurred when Owen propositioned a fellow classmate’s mother after she mentioned that his beloved President Kennedy was carrying on an affair with Marilyn Monroe. It was just awkward. No amount of acting would have me believe the scene was natural or that a mother would stroll into her 16-year-old son’s all-boys school for a simple tryst.
Scenes that didn’t deal with Owen Meany were not given enough time in the script. Topics left underdeveloped included John’s suppression of his sexuality, his relationship with his grandmother, his life spent fatherless and his anger at Owen’s role in the death of his mother.
Creavin possessed the hard role of playing both narrator and character. He was adept in portraying himself as a shy and scarred youth through his physical acting, although I would have liked to see more of older John in the first act of the story so that his monologues during the end of the production would have been less confusing. As is, they leave the audience questioning whether they are facing a present-day John or young John. He played a character, who is supposed to be overshadowed by Meany and had to compensate for a performance intended to be over-the-top.
The staging by David Shatan-Pardo ’15 walked the line between bold and understated. The stage is a baseball diamond which has a second and third base raised on a platform. There is metal fencing in the background, on which different props (window frames, crosses) were hung to mark significant changes as the plot proceeded.
The set had to accommodate a complicated story, one composed of quick flashes, occasionally with three, sometimes four, plotlines occurring at once. The minimalistic setting saves time but requires audience members to use their imaginations, which places more emphasis on the performances of the play’s actors; something that could have gone horribly wrong if the cast hadn’t nailed their performances.
The ponderings of John Wheelwright begins when he is a young boy and continues until he is 45. The crediblity of a cast of 18- to 19-year-olds aging from prepubesence to old age was greatly aided by the costuming (done by Abigail Carney ’15). The period garb not only established characters’ changing ages, but also showed the changing times of the development of John and his friends — from the placid 1950s to the troubled ’60s.
All in all, an expertly chosen cast and continuous humor make “A Prayer for Owen Meany” a fun show, while still adhering to the tone and message of an American classic.
“A Prayer for Owen Meany” is playing at the Yale Repertory Theater on Friday, April 6 at 8:00 p.m. and Saturday, April 7 at 2:00 and 8:00 p.m.