‘Owen Meany’ explores nuances of faith

By: Hannah Sgambellone ~Staff Writer~

Photo courtesy of cincinnatimagazine.com | In order from left to right, David Whalen (Dan Needham), Jeremy Webb (John Wheelwright) and Gardner Reed (Tabitha Wheelwright) star in Playhouse’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, in theaters until Oct. 1

The Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s season opener, A Prayer for Owen Meany, is an introspective, honest exploration of fate, friendship and doubt.

The play is an abstract, delicate and sometimes raw piece that follows the friendship of two young men in the turbulent years leading up to the Vietnam War. John Wheelwright, the play’s narrator, follows his childhood friendship with the enigmatic Owen Meany, a boy with a small stature and damaged larynx that causes him to speak with a characteristically highpitched voice for the entirety of his life.

As they grow, Owen is convinced that he is God’s instrument, and as both the heartwarming and tragic events of the play unfold, Owen and John assert their friendship on this foundation of belief and doubt in even the existence of God.

It’s a fascinatingly spiritual piece that, though told in the context of religion, is at the same time completely absent of it, relying on complete faith in God rather than reliance in institutions of man.

Where Meany succeeds, it does so with flying colors. Director Blake Robison balances the nostalgia of the sixties well with the timelessness of loss and friendship and is able to synthesize a multitude of ideas on belief, doubt and hypocrisy in less than two hours.

In adapting a novel as expansive as John Irving’s Owen Meany, the artistic team was faced with the challenge of presenting themes that are more literary in nature to an audience.

The Playhouse surpasses this obstacle by placing the scenes in an abstract, almost timeless representation of memory, and in its sometimes multi-layered scenes it is able to encompass a full, sweeping narrative in a way that is not overwhelming.

The challenges of a piece with a scope as broad as Meany’s are found in its staging. Some of the imagery tended to be heavy-handed, which offset the simplicity of the design and costumes in strange ways at times. However, certain symbols (such as the scarlet dress and the baseball) resonated well enough throughout the play to make up for the more awkward images.

Specific performances were particularly notable. Gardner Reed was a complexity of magnetism and motherly instinct, subverting two stereotypes of female performance in one brilliant move.

Xavier alumna Tatum Hunter was also a welcome presence, adapting to a diverse set of characters with her signature blend of intellectual maturity and childlike wonder.

The most dominant presence was that of Sean Mellot, whose Owen Meany was a striking whirlwind of intellect, sex, a Christ complex, loyalty and Lenny Bruce.

Owen Meany offered a strong set of distinct characters, each of whom was endowed with a wholeness of person that added to the world of the story in a way that was both simple and intricate.

In Owen Meany’s abstraction, the audience is left drawing from their own emotional landscape in connection with the ethereal, vulnerable presentation of the piece.

In its moments of lightness, the audience shares the joys of childhood friendship and the connections between mother and son, as John’s fondest memories soar through a bright blue sky.

In its grittier moments, we weep and rage and question and pray as the plot barrels unwaveringly toward the Vietnam War, and Owen and John are caught in the crossfire.

Through its moments of tragedy and grief, A Prayer for Owen Meany does not feel particularly like a eulogy or a coming of age piece. Rather, it’s an honest, vulnerable question of faith that leaves the answer for the audience to decide.