Damien, playing through May 5 at Lamb’s Players Theatre’s Coronado facility, reaches back to the company’s roots as a street theatre started by alumni of a small Christian college in Minnesota. Stage something simple, moral, and powerful, and people will come. Producing Artistic Director Robert Smyth first performed this one-man play about the priest to the leper community of Molokai thirty years ago, and every so often he gets it out and performs it again.
Written by Aldyth Morris, best known as the managing editor of the University of Hawaii Press, the plot follows a number of conventions of Christian drama (and, truth be told, drama of all sorts): set up the hero as cantankerous, high-minded, and always fighting the establishment, and let the story play out in a way that insures the audience will realize that it is the hero’s faith that makes him a hero.
Played against a framing device of Father Damien’s funeral and the shipment of his body back to his native Belgium for burial allows the priest to narrate both his time in Hawaii and, oddly enough, at the end to reflect on his upbringing and how he became a priest in the first place. It’s an inspiring story but one whose details come as no surprise to anyone who has heard such a story in the past.
Ms. Morris does not quite canonize Father Damien (the Catholic Church managed to do that in 2009) but she doesn’t allow him any weaknesses or substantial misjudgments. He’s a fighter from beginning to end, and if he has doubts they are quickly put to rest.
In other words, whatever nuance might be present has to come from the performer.
Mr. Smyth is a savvy actor, and he does bring nuance to the role. He wisely doesn’t go for a lot of bombast, and he keeps the delivery simple and to the point. The production follows suit, from Deborah Gilmour Smyth’s “keep things moving” staging and use of Hawaiian chants to set the scene, to Michael McKeon’s poles-and-thatching scenic design, to Nathan Peirson’s area lighting plot and Jeanne Barnes Reith’s cassock for Mr. Smyth. The hard part is memorizing the script, and while Mr. Smyth stumbled several times at the performance I saw, he always had ways of getting back on track (the show runs 1 hour and 50 minutes, including a fifteen minute intermission).
Believers may certainly appreciate having Lamb’s stage an overtly Christian tale during Eastertide, but others may be reminded that Lamb’s has moved away from producing these sorts of shows (though, not so far away as to risk offending the audience that might well enjoy this production).[php snippet=1]
St. Damien of Molokai’s feast day is celebrated on April 15 in both the Roman Catholic and the Anglican liturgical calendar. Ironically enough, as April 15 falls on a Monday, Lamb’s will not be performing Damien on that day. But, you can see it every other day of the week.