Of love and loss in the desert
An Almost Holy Picture at the Adobe Rose Theatre
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