Acting Natural While Cramming it In: SAINT JOHN THE DIVINE IN IOWA

Photo Credit: Another Country Productions

Saint John the Divine in Iowa by Lyralen Kaye, Another Country Productions, Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, 3/2/12-3/18/12, http://www.anothercountry.org/productions.html.

Reviewed by Craig Idlebrook

(Boston, MA) There is a fine line to walk when it comes to groundbreaking plays.  It’s difficult to keep a thought-provoking issue from swallowing the play.  The result can be a diatribe at worst, or an afterschool special at best.  The only way to keep a play that handles heavy-hitting social issues on track is to populate it with characters who are drawn razor-sharp and true to life.

Another Country’s production of Saint John the Divine in Iowa can read a lot like a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner for the 21st century.  But instead of just tackling one issue (gay marriage), playwright Lyralen Kaye throws the social-issue kitchen sink at the audience (gay marriage, monogamy vs. polyamory, gender identity and spirituality, with the nature of marriage thrown in for good measure).  It is a testament to Kaye’s sharp writing, Julia Short’s nuanced direction and this cast’s stellar performances that the play nearly pulls together as a cohesive work.

Ultimately, though, Kaye writes in too much material, too many hurt feelings and too many mended fences to keep the audience fully connected with the story line in the final act.  Still, this play is worth the price of admission both for the conversation it will spark afterwards on gender and marriage and for the vivid and honest scenes created by this strong cast.

In this biting comedy, Reverand Alex (also Lyralen Kaye), an episcopal priest in Iowa, learns that your offspring will always find the chink in your armor.  A liberal minister who has campaigned for gay marriage in Iowa, the reverend grows deeply troubled when her own daughter, Sarah (Caitlin Berger) brings home a tattooed and pierced girlfriend, also named Alex (Meghan Rice).  What ensues is many minutes of comically painful awkwardness, followed by a lot of soul-searching on  love and commitment for the reverend’s entire family.

This script is complicated to pull off, but under Short’s direction, the cast never loses faith in the material or each other.  The audience knows it is in for something special right from the reverend’s opening sermon, which Kaye delivers as effortlessly as if she were making off-the-cuff remarks at a friend’s dinner party.  In scene after scene, the cast eschews theatrics for underplayed moments of intimacy.  At times, it seems as if the cast has forgotten there is a play going on, and we are just eavesdropping on a conversation at a coffee shop.

While Kaye is the heart and soul of the play, Alan Dary (Charlie, the reverend’s wife) should also be singled out for creating a bumbling father who also is a three-dimensional figure on stage.  And Rice, a newcomer to theater, does such a good job of not doing too much, instead letting the energy between her and Berger materialize from the source material.

Not everything works in this play, aside from the daunting pile of social issues.  There’s a materialized Jesus (Joan Mejia) thrown in that never seems to gain much traction, and the whole thing just seems fifteen minutes too long, pacing-wise. Also, Short seems to favor creating truncated scenes, perhaps trying to keep competing issues separate, which sometimes makes the whole play lose air.

Mostly, however, there are so many insights that Kaye offers in this script that it would have been better for each one to be explored further before racing on to the next.  That being said, this is the kind of play that we need as we sort out what love means in the 21st century.  And when it comes to theatre, it might be best to do too much than too little.

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