'Owen Meany' Soars on A String and a Prayer
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
"The theater is a great emphasizer," John Irving wrote in his 1989 novel, "A Prayer for Owen Meany." And it's the peculiar but powerful faith of the wee title character that is emphasized in Simon Bent's theatrical adaptation of Irving's book now being staged with epic flair at Bethesda's Round House Theatre.
The evidence and mystery shrouding that faith is the story's core. Bent sacrifices some of the fiery social context and vivid secondary characters that made "Owen Meany" one of Irving's most popular novels, but you can't say that what remains doesn't hold the stage. Round House Artistic Director Blake Robison's production -- which flies by at just under three hours -- is galvanized by Matthew Detmer's charismatic leading performance and a simple yet sweeping design that virtually starts in the clouds and ends in front of a tremendous American flag.
That core spiritual story line has power to spare, especially as driven by Detmer's weirdly radiant, transfixing turn. It's a technical feat, for starters: Detmer, sporting peroxided hair and elfin ears, has to play the part in a high falsetto to approximate Owen's bizarrely "ruined" voice (which Irving rendered in BLOCK CAPITAL LETTERS).
You buy that, as well as the diminutive stature suggested by Kate Turner-Walker's oversize costumes, because Detmer takes such command of the part. The miraculous, pint-sized Owen has an intuitive nose for hypocrisy and slack thinking; like a pipsqueak Jesus, he's always giving morality lessons, some of which are entertainingly subversive, and most of which are surprising.
Detmer has the wit for that, as well as the earthy cockiness, yet he also gives the character's doubt and all-too-human thin skin its due. Despite his fundamental certainty, the character has mystery as he marches toward the date he believes God has told him he will die.
He's also prone to strange events that could be viewed as prophecies and miracles, something Robison makes transparent: You can see the thin harness wires on Detmer as young Owen gets tossed aloft for sport -- a maneuver in which Owen is sprung into the air for a basketball slam-dunk. Knowing how it's done spoils nothing, partly because Robison treats each flying instance as a thing of beauty, and partly because the wires seem a literal manifestation of Owen's connection with God (which baffles narrator John Wheelwright).
Besides Detmer's turn, the show's brisk fascination is especially due to the questing spiritual chord struck by Irving's tale, even if its persistent, brute topicality is mitigated a bit in Bent's version. Wheelwright, a politically embittered American expatriate, is the chief casualty here. His anti-Reagan diatribes are essentially gone, and "Meany" purists will wait in vain for, say, Hester the Molester (Wheelwright's caustic, lusty cousin) and the calculated violence Owen does to John's finger.
The novelistic business of shifting time and place is handled in spare, painterly fashion, with blasts of rock-and-roll energy coming from Matthew M. Nielson's sound design and an ebullient Act III opening number choreographed by Karma Camp. Robison and set designer James Kronzer decorate the vast stage selectively as Owen's story moves from the '40s through the '60s, avoiding clutter as images are created (with lighting designer Daniel MacLean Wagner) on an impressive scale.
The actors seem comfortable with the large space, although the support from the big, workmanlike ensemble is seldom striking. (Characters tend to seem flat next to Owen.) The best of the group: Gia Mora's sunny work as Wheelwright's scandalously single mother; Michael Kramer's plummy turns as a hammy actor and a Viennese psychiatrist; John Lescault's human question mark as the uncertain Rev. Merrill; and the mean, spooky Meanys, played as grim, bickering eccentrics in black by Lawrence Redmond and Kimberly Schraf.
Ian Kahn makes an emotionally interested witness as Wheelwright, but his persistent cultural commentary has pretty much been transferred elsewhere. Bent's main gambit is a tirade of Owen's that Detmer gets to render out of character, a la Lenny Bruce. Played like that, it's Wheelwright's fury, and Irving's, but it's dropped into the story sideways.
Yet the critique is arresting, about how Owen saw in the 1960s -- and Wheelwright confirmed from his vantage point in the 1980s -- the country's apparent drive toward moral and political oversimplification.
With Sarah Ruhl's "Passion Play" at Arena Stage last September, this marks the second straight theater season to open with a brave three-act drama on this topic. Trend? Coincidence? Hard to say, but heartening to see.