Occasionally, a fine play is overwhelmed by actors who wrestle its words to the ground or by a director who tramples the point its author meant to make. In the case of iTheatre Collaborative's new production of An Almost Holy Picture, now on stage at the Herberger, the opposite is true. Rosemary Close's concise, tranquil direction of her husband Christopher Haines' one-man performance finds and burnishes what's good about Heather McDonald's play, based on Pamela Ward's short story The Hairy Little Girl.
Samuel Gentle is the gardener and groundskeeper of a small church. He, a former minister, and his wife have survived three miscarriages before their daughter, Ariel, is born. She suffers from a peculiar condition, inherited from her father, and is born covered in a fine coat of golden hair. Gentle stands on a knoll, describing for us how he found God, and how his faith was shattered when a bus he was riding in crashed, killing nine of the children aboard.
As the storyteller, Haines is neither muted nor grandiose. He sustains a consistently genial quality, underplaying like mad but also bringing life to a lackluster role. Haines manages not to become a casualty to McDonald's monologue, which meanders and falters. The actor's affable nature and comfortable use of casual language save him — and us — from McDonald's sometimes sleepy narrative.
Close's direction meshes neatly with Haines' presentation, so that the very obvious choreography, the neatly timed line deliveries never feel obvious. Ultimately, these nods to stylishness and elegant trickery help elevate a story whose characters have no place to go.
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If there are any surprises in McDonald's story, they come by way of unfulfilled expectations. The author hints at tragedy, and we assume Ariel will likely die. She does not. Foreshadowing tells us to expect a fire to cause some of the damage lurking in the shadows of McDonald's script; it never ignites. A story with themes this rich and diverse — the relationship between a father and a daughter; a man's relationship with God; the ideologies of faith — should be more compelling.
Haines himself designed the lighting and sound cues that help breathe life into McDonald's wan story. Warm sunlight, shadows cast by unseen trees, birds chirping help create some excellent tableaux. And if these snapshots don't equal entertainment, they're at least a persuasive backdrop for a fine performance by Mr. Haines.
An Almost Holy Picture continues through Saturday, June 27, on the Kax Stage at Herberger Theatre Center, 222 East Monroe St. Call 602-254-7399 or visit www.itheatre.org.