GOODLY CREATURES -- At the Round House Theater through February 17.
Silver Spring has a major theatrical event in "Goodly Creatures," a brand-new play by William Gibson being given a fine production at the Round House Theater.
That is not, however, the same thing as a hot theatrical event. "Goodly Creatures" is not a dramatic powerhouse, like Gibson's "The Miracle Worker" or "Two for the Seesaw": It's hopelessly complex and nearly unplayable. But for those willing to make the effort, it is enormously rewarding for its fine writing and meticulous history.
The play is about Anne Hutchinson's travails in the early Massachusetts Bay Colony, from which she was ultimately banished. The crucial theological argument is between the concepts of "works" and "grace," which takes a full page insert in the program to explain as being the difference between seeking God through daily good acts or through faith.
If you are not paying careful attention to the play, it may sound as if these are the opposing forces represented by Hutchinson on the other side and the clergy of the colony on the other. And that would be relatively easy to follow. But the fact is that both consider themselves as representing the path of "grace." The conflict is that Hutchinson's claim of access to God -- and, more importantly, her obviously direct and effective access to popular opinion -- disturb the clergy by implying that they, in contrast, have fallen from devotion to grace to excessive involvement in the works of regulating daily life.
Another name for regulating the lives of citizens is, of course, government; and the political question of how to hold the fragile new colony together is the crucial one for Governor John Winthrop, the other leading character in the play. Represented as a reasonable man, he becomes persuaded that however right Hutchinson may be, a colony threatened by both England and Indians cannot afford the luxury of one dissent-creating woman. This brings out the irony of stifling theological debate among those who came to America because they had been so stifled at home.
Free speech, political unity, sexism -- all of these are ingredients in a predicament that becomes as morally tangled as history itself. No one apsect controls or even dominates this play. Hutchinson claims nearly all of one's sympathies, partly because she is shown to be an unusually good and useful woman in, oddly enough, her daily "works" -- but mainly because Beth McDonald gives a triumphant performance of her as a glorious heroine.
This means that by sheer emotional force, she has cut through the arguments of the script to put it on the level of whether one passionately good woman should be hounded by a bunch of Puritan clerics. Paul Haggard, as Governor Winthrop, is strong and interesting, and Jerry Whiddon, as the next governor, Harry Vane, exerts a powerful attraction. But although the positions of these characters may be a political match for Hutchinson's, as one reflects soberly after the play is over, their roles are no dramatic match.
The cast and the director, John Edwards, have done amazing things to bring this play to life, but they cannot compensate for its lack of dramatic thrust. The complications of history, to be presented on the stage, must be reduced to a few dramatically intelligible positions. But Gibson, the acclaimed playwright, has turned academic on us.