Of love and loss in the desert

An Al­most Holy Pic­ture at the Adobe Rose The­atre

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - I Jen­nifer Levin The New Mex­i­can

For some, re­li­gious faith is a sim­ple matte r. Th ey can feel God’s pres­ence in their lives and take com­fort in his love. For oth­ers, it is a more in­tel­lec­tual strug­gle, shaped by a long­ing for the divine as well as a world-weari­ness an­chored in life ex­pe­ri­ence, where God’s plan has not al­ways made sense. Inez Castillo stands out­side her house in the desert near Al­bu­querque and howls curses at God — an act that in­trigues her neigh­bor, Samuel Gen­tle, an Epis­co­palian min­is­ter who re­counts the in­ci­dent in An Al­most Holy Pic­ture, a Pulitzer Prize-nom­i­nated play by Heather McDon­ald. “Well, here’s the deal,” Inez tells him. “I think of God as some­one I can abuse and who can abuse me back. Nev­er­the­less, there is a re­la­tion­ship. Got it?” Yelling at the sky is how she prays. “I’m giv­ing God my full at­ten­tion. Isn’t that prayer?” Samuel agrees that it is. McDon­ald wrote the play two decades ago, when her daugh­ter be­came se­ri­ously ill dur­ing her first year of life. “She had a full im­mune sys­tem break­down and didn’t grow or gain weight for six months. I stopped ev­ery­thing to take care of her; I wore her in the belly pack around the clock,” she told Pasatiempo. “The only time I had to my­self that year was from about four to six a.m., and that’s when I wrote this play. It’s a deeply per­sonal piece, writ­ten dur­ing a very dark pe­riod when I felt al­most as if I had stepped off the Earth.”

In the wee hours of the morn­ing, she was re­minded of her own child­hood, when her younger sister de­vel­oped a rare form of lung can­cer. Af­ter per­form­ing painful phys­i­cal ther­apy on her, their fa­ther would be so over­whelmed that he would have to get into bed to re­cover. He was also a re­li­gious man who led Bi­ble stud­ies and wres­tled with ques­tions of faith. The char­ac­ter of Samuel emerged from McDon­ald’s mem­o­ries of her fa­ther dur­ing that time — and though she had at first en­vi­sioned all the char­ac­ters in the play mak­ing their way to the stage, in her mind’s eye, she kept see­ing just one man talk­ing alone.

“I didn’t even like the one-per­son form, so it’s strange that this is how it came to me. For a while I thought I might be writ­ing a novella. It wasn’t un­til well into re­hearsals for the first pro­duc­tion that I was even sure it would work as a piece of theater. What I found out later was that peo­ple bring their own losses and sto­ries and ques­tions to it. If they re­spond to it, they re­spond very emo­tion­ally.”

De­spite a var­ied and vivid as­sort­ment of peo­ple in his life, Samuel is the only per­son who ap­pears on­stage in An Al­most Holy Pic­ture, a so­lil­o­quy in four parts. Dan Fried­man stars in Theater­work’s pro­duc­tion of the play, open­ing at the Adobe Rose The­atre on Fri­day, Nov. 18. Samuel traces the ex­pe­ri­ences that have shaped his idea of God, one of which was the birth of his daugh­ter, Ariel, who has a rare dis­ease — con­gen­i­tal hy­per­tri­chosis lanug­i­nosa — that causes her to grow a layer of hair all over her body. Be­cause she is blond, her downy fur is golden and shim­mers in the light.

“I wanted her to have a con­di­tion that was real, that wouldn’t kill her, and was sort of beau­ti­ful but freak­ish at the same time,” McDon­ald said. “And I wanted to show the daily slog, as op­posed to the kind of ill­ness that is a cri­sis, where you rise to the oc­ca­sion.”

Samuel, who has be­come the groundskeeper of a New Eng­land church­yard, and his wife, Miriam, a pro­fes­sor of an­thro­pol­ogy, du­ti­fully shave Ariel each week so that she is not made fun of or stared at in pub­lic. When Ariel is nine, her con­di­tion is ex­posed via a friend­ship with an older boy in a way that causes Samuel to in­ad­ver­tently be­tray her trust in him and shat­ter her still-ide­al­is­tic vi­sion of hu­man­ity. “In that mo­ment, I feel like he doesn’t have a con­scious thought about why he’s up­set. It’s

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