An Almost Holy Picture should come with trigger warnings about bad parenting

Pacific Theatre is presenting An Almost Holy Picture.

Actor David Snider brings simplicity to An Almost Holy Picture. The script doesn’t always return the favour.

In An Almost Holy Picture, Samuel Gentle delivers a monologue about his relationship with his daughter Ariel. Samuel is such a bad parent that I wanted to stab him. To make matters worse, he is a bad parent in a very obvious way. The moral of the story and the action that Samuel needs to take were painfully clear to me soon after the intermission—but it took Samuel another long, meandering, homespun act to catch up. It’s not a good idea to let your audience get that far ahead of you.

Samuel is a former preacher who now tends his bishop’s garden. He believes that God has spoken to him three times. The first was when he was a child crossing a cranberry bog on Cape Cod with his father. They both heard a voice say, “Follow me.” If this was a hallucination, at least it was shared. Samuel has experienced tragedy. I won’t get into that. And he faces a challenge: his daughter was born with an unusual condition. I won’t get into the specifics of that condition either, because there’s a weird beauty in the surprise.

But I will say that Samuel’s response is to try to hide his daughter’s difference. He frames her singularity as a great burden to himself: martyred by his responsibility for a bright, loving, responsive child, he counts every day of his parenting by putting another bean in a big glass jar of self-pity. Yes, Ariel looks unusual— very unusual and that would be hard to deal with—but Samuel tries to shield himself by denying who his daughter is. In doing so, he undermines Ariel’s strength rather than enforcing it.

Of course he wants to protect her, too. But it’s manifestly clear that his approach isn’t going to work out.

This flaw in the conception of the play makes me angry partly because it feels like a betrayal of the beauty that exists elsewhere in the script. Samuel describes a photograph of Ariel so vividly—it’s the titular picture—that I can still conjure it. There are telling details: describing a young physician, Samuel says, “The way he held his head suggested he had not yet known grief.” There’s considerable humour: infuriated with that same physician, Samuel calls him a dillwad. Samuel has heard rough boys use the word and he has been polishing it up for such an occasion.

Other elements of the text feel to me too self-consciously poetic. Playwright Heather McDonald likes to repeat phrases, for instance—“I offer up my day. I offer up my day”: repetition can be a lazy way to conjure emotion. And some of the imagery is forced. In Act 1, Ariel says she has a guardian angel who wears a tuxedo and smokes. When that angel—actually a small flock of them—shows up later, you can almost hear the squeak of the author’s Sharpie underlining the connection.

It’s the framing of non-normative humanity that really sticks in my craw, though. On summer holiday in Truro, Ariel meets a supposedly wild boy named Angel. Angel’s speech is limited, but he is a genius photographer and can magically find lost objects. The romanticization of the disabled bugs the hell out of me. Both Angel and Ariel’s name reference messengers from heaven. Stop it.

The script is badly structured. After a couple of compelling episodes, it goes off the rails part way through Act 1 and, for a long time, Act 2 wanders.

Luckily David Snider delivers a humble, heartfelt performance as Samuel. He skillfully inhabits the play’s emotions and humour. He has a light touch when he’s impersonating Ariel. And, because Snider’s performance is so unadorned, he leavens the aw-shucks folksiness that’s written into the script’s rhythms.

Phil Miguel’s lighting adds appropriately expressionistic drama.

At the end of this play, my frustration with it found some relief. That relief was a long time coming.

AN ALMOST HOLY PICTURE by Heather McDonald. Directed by Ron Reed. Presented by Pacific Theatre. Originally produced at Rosebud Theatre. At Pacific Theatre on Wednesday, February 21. Continues until March 3.

Tickets.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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