A Prayer for Owen Meany
Rarely has a live theatrical performance or a play cast such a spell over me that a two and half-hour production flies by in what seems like a heartbeat. Such is the case with the Stoneham Theatre’s stunning production of A Prayer for Owen Meany - a new play by Simon Bent based on John Irving’s novel about the beloved little guy with the scratchy odd voice. This is play’s first New England performance and it’s well worth your time to get over to downtown Stoneham to experience what I think is the best piece of theatre you’ll see anywhere near Boston this year.
Turning Irving’s novel into a play was a brave undertaking. The book is mostly internal dialog between two childhood friends who grow up debating the nature of existence, life, death, erections, nuns and Liberace - although not necessarily in that order. Brent somehow distilled the book down into a brilliant play that carries the heart and soul of Irving’s novel onto the stage keeping his most memorable characters, with all their human frailty, uncertainty and heartfelt joy, in tact.
Timothy Smith is terrific as John Wheelwright, the play’s narrator who tells his story about his life and his best friend Owen, a tiny little guy with a scratchy voice. Wheelwright’s lifelong doubts about faith and religion and such are often at odds with Owen’s belief that he is the instrument of God and here on earth for a purpose. The two have odd family histories that bind them to each other as they navigate their way around the uptight society of their small provincial New England town.
John has never known the identity of his father, and Owen’s brittle mother and angry father claim he was a virgin birth, which has ostracized them for their church and community. The two boys cling to their friendship and while growing up debating their belief in God and the nature of the universe. When Owen, in an unexpected burst of strength, hits a baseball pitch that accidentally kills John’s mother, John’s cynical behavior takes a turn for the worse while Owen tries to make sense of death. Owen starts to have dreams and keep diaries so he can document his life. In his dreams he see ghosts and has premonitions about his own death, which becomes the overriding factor in his life. He even goes so far as to have a tombstone made because he is convinced that he knows the exact day he’ll die.
When the boys are old enough they join the Army to go off to Viet Nam because Owen wants to stop the war and John can’t allow him to go off by himself. They never get to Viet Nam and when Owen is assigned the task of returning a wayward Army casket to a family in Arizona, the premonition of his death that has been haunting him for most of his life comes true - but in the most unlikely of circumstances. In the end "A Prayer for Owen Meany" is joyous celebration of life that questions the very nature of faith while celebrating the human condition in all it’s messy unpredictable glory.
In the title role Ken Schatz is charismatic, believable and simply dazzling as he portrays Owen from a child to an adult. Schatz affects a gravel voice that will make your throat hurt when you hear it; so much so that when he breaks out of character towards the plays end to deliver a stand-up diatribe in his normal voice it’s a shocking revelation. A 20-member cast supports Schatz’s bravura performance with particularly strong female performances by Ann Marie Shea, Caitlin Lowans, Sharon Mason, Chrisi Miles and Bobbie Steinbach.
Director Weylin Symes has nicely framed the production with minimal sets and stage pieces that take great advantage of the Stoneham Theatre’s stage with effective lighting and clever staging for most of the action. If you’re an Irving fan or just want to see a damn good play don’t miss this limited-run production which only runs through January 29.
Stoneham Theatre; 395 Main Street; Stoneham, MA 02180
Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8:00 p.m.; Saturday at 4:00 p.m.; Saturday at 8:00 p.m.; Sunday at 2:00 p.m.
Tickets: $18 - $36