Faith infuses every level of Samuel Brett Williams’ play The Woodpecker, now receiving its West Coast premiere at Studio/Stage Theatre.
The question posed by the playwright, who was raised as a “strict Southern Baptist,” is how does one maintain faith in a loving God, when a world fraught with violence, brutality, war and torture, disperses daily denial to such a benevolent deity?
Young Jimmy (Brian Norris) opens the play vomiting into a bucket. Deep scars lacerate one side of his face, as stark as the mark of Cain itself. Another “mark,” one of his own devising, is apparent as well on his sweat coated shoulder — a tattoo of Daredevil, a comic book hero who battles evil despite his being totally blind. Pulling his head up from the bucket Jimmy fumbles with a tube of Elmer’s Glue inhaling deeply of it for a quick cheap rush, and then turns his eyes heavenward beseeching of God the courage to face the pending deployment of his company to the Iraqi war zone.
Played with a convincing sincerity by Norris, Jimmy is an earnest believer in the power of prayer, which cured his mother of her “booby cancer” through the intercession of the local preacher Brother Eric, who ministers to the folks in the region of Arkansas where the trailer of Jimmy and his parents is nestled on the edge rough wilderness.
When we first meet Jimmy’s mother (Tamara Zooks) a frail wreckage of a woman, we quickly realize that while she may have had her own cancer healed by prayer, that miraculous curing did not extend into the diseased bosom of her family, the canker of which is found in Jimmy’s father Harold (Mark Withers.) Harold is a brute who terrorizes his son and wife despite his confinement to a wheelchair, the result of some undisclosed accident.
Prayer is the thread Williams uses to bind the moments of his piece into a dramatic whole, and we are shown each family member in the act of obtestation. Harold, in his personal theomachy, bellows a bullying prayer, a demand rather than an entreaty that the Almighty watch over his son which is capped with his threat to tear down the pearly gates if harm comes to him. An increasing use of prescription painkillers by Jimmy’s mother contributes to her visions of Jesus in the steam rising off a chicken casserole. Pleading that the Lord knows she is a good person, she implores his help to stay her from implanting a steak knife into Harold’s temple while he sleeps, suggesting the temptation could be removed by His giving her husband a stroke instead. Jimmy finds in nature his conduit to the Lord, and on long sojourns deep into the back country he gives himself freely over to communing with God.
His scars we learn were received during one such retreat, when he was a victim to a bear’s attack. His disfigurement he blames on himself, maintaining his “disrespected” of the bear brought on the attack. While in his forested chapel, a last visit before he must leave to report for duty, Jimmy prays for a sign that he’ll find the courage to be the hero his father expects of him, a sign he receives in the appearance of a woodpecker.
One can fault Williams’s narrative as unfolding too inaptly. Those questions, poised of faith, he has sought to answer thru the dramatic equivalent of basic arithmetic, when the solutions beg the application of a higher algebra. But while his shafts do not sink in deeply they hit their marks thanks to his well etched characters and astute ear for dialogue.
Jon Cohn’s direction, while unable to provide the play with the gravitas it lacks, does serve in sharpening the work’s strength through crisp pacing. Cohn, along with technical director Chil Kong and Christopher Singleton the lighting designer, succeeds in framing with eloquent subtlety the shifting of the various scenes on a somewhat problematic set.
However the lion share of credit for making this a most worthwhile evening in the theater must go to the fine cast. Norris and Wither cannot be faulted in their work. Zook conveys such depths of despair with her performance that at times the audience feels itself in danger of drowning beneath their waves.
Two other actors hold sway for most of the second act. Andrew Price’s Kevin is a movie-loving Michigan reservist who finds himself in charge of prisoners at a military detainment center and pontificates how all great empires fall, “Rome, French, Miramax.” Ryan Nealy, as a hooded and manacled prisoner, brings a humanity to a role that a lesser actor would likely have refused as thankless.
Confined in the sweltering heat of a room hidden beneath an Iraqi prison compound, Jimmy stands over a helpless and tortured soul, as the play concludes and is begun in prayer. “Everything good in the world is built on promises,” the playwright tells us at the top of the second act, implying everything ill in the world must arise from promises that are broken. In this he is correct, especially in our failure to fulfill those promises made to our better angels.
“The Woodpecker,” Studio/Stage Theatre, 520 N. Western Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 3. $20. (323) 871-5826 or www.mutineertheatre.com. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.