A Prayer For Owen Meany: divine exasperation

Guest review by David Johnston

Ensemble Theatre Company is presenting A Prayer for Owen Meany at Pacific Theatre.

Chris Lam and Tariq Leslie work hard but drop the ball in A Prayer for Owen Meany. (Photo by Zemekiss Photography)

It was a bad sign when, after sitting through A Prayer For Owen Meany‘s fourteen-hour runtime, my first reaction was “What was that thing about?” (The program says the runtime is 135 minutes, but just as knowing Owen Meany made protagonist John Wheelwright believe in God, watching Owen Meany made me no longer believe in clocks.)

It’s New Hampshire, 1950s. We follow our heroes John and Owen through two decades from their horny preteens to young adulthood. Owen is unique in many ways: he’s absurdly tiny (he plays the baby Jesus in a Nativity), he has a “wrecked” voice described as a hellish shriek, and he resolutely believes he’s an instrument of God. You know, like Jesus.

Ensemble Theatre Company’s production sledgehammers this last one home immediately, as Owen is Jesus-carried around the stage by four teasing schoolmates and faux-crucified on a chair. Metaphors get slightly less subtle from there.

It’s tempting to lay any problems on Simon Bent’s script, adapted from John Irving’s 617-page novel. Bent writes almost exclusively in awkward scenes that bleed together. Characters wander onstage, or die, or eat cookies, with little rhyme or reason. John’s single mother announces she met a man that afternoon on a train. The next scene is the eve of their wedding. This is a typical transition.

The tone swings jarringly from moment to moment: now the play is a mumblecore family potboiler, now a wacky teen sex comedy, now a fervent anti-war polemic, and now there’s singing. Any five minutes of Owen Meany feel like a different play than any other five minutes. I get that it’s a slipshod memory play, but director Ian Farthing never finds a throughline that strings together the ideas.

It’s unlikely Ensemble Theatre Company (here reprising their 2017 production under the Pacific Theatre umbrella) could ever have overcome the script, but there’s plenty of blame to go round. Perplexing design choices lead the way. The wee Pacific Theatre stage is cramped with set pieces, including a 10-foot comically oversized chair occasionally used to highlight Owen’s tininess. (No other set pieces play with scale in this fashion, but consistency isn’t the watchword of the night.) And the bloated 17-member cast could probably be trimmed to 8-10, considering how much double- and triplecasting a few members of the ensemble are already pulling.

Chris Lam opts to interpret Owen’s “piercing, shrill, blood-curdling” voice as a helium-eriffic Mickey Mouse impression. It’s certainly a choice, but the goofiness of the voice neuters most of the emotion and depth of the character, making Lam’s performance almost beside the point. Meanwhile, artistic director Tariq Leslie’s work as John is … perfectly workmanlike, although there’s rarely any discernible warmth or friendship between his character and Lam’s.

There are pleasures to be found. Reliable character actors including Tanja Dixon-Warren and Christine Reinfort turn in juicy performances. And I could’ve spent a whole evening with the Meany parents (Gabriel Carter and Kim Steger) who do American Gothic via Samuel Beckett. But most of the game cast seems dragged along by the script.

A Prayer For Owen Meany desperately wants to say something profound about faith and our relationship to spirituality. And it desperately needs to find a better way to do so. Irving famously claimed his book was “unfilmable.” I would add “unstageable” to that.

A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY Adapted from John Irving’s novel by Simon Bent. Directed by Ian Farthing. Presented by Pacific Theatre and Ensemble Theatre Company. At Pacific Theatre on Thursday, January 24. Continues until February 9.

Tickets.

 

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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