Heather McDonald's "An Almost Holy Picture" has the beauty and simplicity of a prayer, which is entirely appropriate since this one-man play is about a former clergyman whose faith has been severely tested.
Directed at Center Stage by Tim Vasen and starring Tim Grimm, it is an eloquent, elegant work that allows the audience to bear witness to one man's joy, pain, love and struggle for meaning.
That man is Samuel Gentle, an Episcopal priest who forsook his calling to become a cathedral groundskeeper after nine children died in a bus accident at a church youth camp he ran in New Mexico.
"If it is true that God is somehow testing us, then he must know that many of us are failing the test. If he is only giving us the burdens we can bear, I have seen him miscalculate many times," says Grimm's earnest, soft-spoken Samuel.
Grimm occupies the vast thrust stage of Center Stage's Head Theater by himself for two hours in "An Almost Holy Picture." However, we also get to know the other people in Samuel's life, not merely through Grimm's imitations of their voices, but because he demonstrates the impact they have had on him -- a New Mexico woman who howls at God, "The hell with you!"; the gravel-voiced bishop whose garden Samuel tends; Samuel's anthropologist wife, who transforms herself into Amanda Wingfield in an amateur production of "The Glass Menagerie."
Although McDonald's script is primarily solemn, Vasen and Grimm make the most of its brief interludes of humor, which show Samuel to be not only somber and meditative, but also warm, friendly, humble and occasionally cheerful.
The bus accident is one of three experiences that Samuel says have shaped his personal idea of God. His wife, however, has told him the Hopi Indians believe events happen in fours, and so he awaits one more crucial experience.
His first experience came when he was only 9 and heard a disembodied voice -- possibly that of God -- whispering: "Follow me."
His third experience, and the one that forms the core of McDonald's play, occurred after he left the ministry. His wife gave birth to a daughter with a rare disorder called Congenital Hypertrichosis Lanugo, in which almost all of the body is covered with white-gold hair.
The love Samuel feels for this daughter is so deep, it's nearly overwhelming. When Grimm mimes cradling the infant in his arms while softly serenading her with "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," we understand the beauty he sees in a child the rest of the world would probably label a "freak." Protecting her from that label becomes Samuel's chief mission. But parents need to be able to grant their children freedom, and the painful way Samuel learns that lesson turns out to be his fourth pivotal experience.
McDonald's play is constructed with exquisite subtlety. For instance, watching the production, most theatergoers will probably be unaware that two of its four sections -- the two that begin with Samuel sleepwalking -- are written in free verse, a form that fits the ritualistic side of Samuel's life as well as the dreamlike state of the sleepwalker.
Similarly, there are motifs that repeat without calling attention to themselves. Samuel is 9 when he hears the voice saying "Follow me," and his daughter is 9 when he instigates the event that alters their relationship. At one point, his daughter tells him she thinks she has a guardian angel who wears a tuxedo and smokes cigarettes; later, a character answering that description turns out to play a major role in her life.
Matthew Frey's lighting casts a glow on the production that is, indeed, almost holy. However, Myung Hee Cho's set, with its two, large projection screens in the far corners, is a bit too cold and high-tech for a play that primarily explores the spirit and the heart. And many of John Gromada's sound effects -- particularly the recurring sound of wind chimes -- distract more than enhance.
After intermission at the final preview performance, there was a slight hesitancy in Grimm's delivery. But judging from the actor's mastery of the rest of the material, I have no doubt that this minor shortcoming will disappear in the course of the run.
Overall, Grimm gives a performance that makes McDonald's poignant play resonate with the power of, if not prayer, at least contemplation and wonder.
'An Almost Holy Picture'
Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 7: 30 p.m. most Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays and 1 p.m. Feb. 24. Through Feb. 28
Call: 410-332-0033 Pub Date: 2/04/99