a theatre, film & pop culture review
Who: Stella Powell-Jones, director; Theater Breaking Through Barriers, producing company
Where: Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row (produced by Manhattan Theatre Club)
When: June 11-July 16, 2016 (opened June 22)
Why Watch: Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB) is the only Off-Broadway theater, and one of the few professional theaters in the country, dedicated to advancing actors and writers with disabilities. Starting out as Theater by the Blind, the integrated company – which expanded its mission in 2008 to include artists with all physical disabilities and has always included able-bodied artists as well – has worked for over 37 years to change the perception of people with disabilities from one of dependence to one of independence.
“I know your life is awful now, but don’t worry – soon you’ll be dead, and then you’ll be sitting at the right hand of God.” This isn’t a quote from the newest play by MacArthur “Genius” Samuel D. Hunter (The Whale, Pocatello). It’s an honest-to-god statement made by a stranger to TBTB company member Shannon DeVido, who uses a wheelchair. This tale of misguided empathy is what inspired The Healing, which Hunter wrote specifically for TBTB. (The script specifies that six of the seven roles should be played by actors with disabilities; though, with the exception of two characters, he doesn’t dictate what those disabilities must be.)
DeVido plays Sharon, who gathers with three childhood pals (and one new love interest) at the home of a deceased friend, Zoe (a dreamy, lost Pamela Sabaugh) shortly after the funeral, in rural Idaho. It’s been awhile since they were all in the same room together (a Disney-and-Precious-Moments-tchotchke paradise meticulously curated by Jason Simms); that fact, compounded by the grief of their too-recent loss, brings bubbling to the surface memories of their less-than-sunny summers at a Christian Science camp. These distressing recollections – the camp’s founder (Lynne Lipton in a pained, perfect performance) insisted they could pray away their disabilities – create an air of defensiveness and resentment.
This being a Sam Hunter play, the tense atmosphere is punctured, when relief is necessary, with sharp and soft humor alike. DeVido’s Sharon rages quietly; never raising her voice, she makes stinging, sarcastic digs at anyone she deems as lower IQ (i.e., religious), but also reveals herself to be lovingly indulgent of the depressed, lost Zoe. The cast – which also features a funny and endearing David Harrell as gay, thoughtful Donald; Mary Theresa Archbold as the charmingly cranky Laura; and deaf actor John McGinty as outsider Greg – makes for a moving ensemble of strong, subtle performances by differently abled bodies. Sensitively directed by Powell-Jones, The Healing doesn’t have quite the same impact of Hunter’s other works, but the playwrights’ startlingly huge humanity is present in each small moment. The Heartland’s inhabitants couldn’t ask for a more empathetic scripter of their quietly complex lives.