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PlayMakers Repertory Company will present the American premiere of hot new British dramatist Simon Bent's critically acclaimed stage adaptation of American author John Irving's epic novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, from Oct. 15 to Nov. 9 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The San Francisco Chronicle called Irving's 1989 novel "a lavish meditation on predestination, faith, and the unrealized forces that shape one's days."
In remembering the novel's truly unforgettable title character — a small boy who will never get any bigger in stature — the novel's narrator, John Wheelwright, confesses: "I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice — not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."
PRC artistic director David Hammond will direct this extraordinary story of baseball, friendship, faith, and destiny; and adapter Simon Bent will be in Chapel Hill to do rewrites and work with Hammond in staging the first American production of this singular drama, which debuted June 10-29, 2002, at the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain.
"I saw the second performance of [A Prayer for Owen Meany] at the National Theatre," says Hammond. "I saw it the day after it opened. What attracted me to it was the incredibly original voice of the playwright. It was a totally fresh experience — as if fresh air were roaring into the theater."
Hammond says, "The only other time that I've really had that experience was the first performance of Tony Kushner's Angels in America. People were cheering during the performance of A Prayer for Owen Meany.
"It also speaks to the temper of the times," Hammond claims. "It addresses questions of moral responsibility and integrity. It's a wonderful mix of comedy and drama and satire, realized in an original theatrical form. It's not quite like any other play I've ever seen. It does new things in the theater.
"A year later," says David Hammond, "I still feel exactly the same way. Having worked on it, I respect and love it even more than before. Simon Bent is one of Britain's most important young playwrights. He's highly reputed. He's produced six or seven plays. He had two at the National Theatre last year, this one and The Associate; and the National has just workshopped his two newest plays this year. In fact, he was late getting to [PRC] rehearsals because they were workshopping his newest play, Property. And his other new play, The Early Life, Adventures, and Pyracies of the Famous Long John Silver Before He Lost His Leg, is fabulous and I'm hoping we can do it here."
Hammond claims, "A Prayer for Owen Meany is the kind of play PlayMakers should be doing. It fits our mission. It explores the theater in a new way. It's addresses issues that are important to the world."
Hammond adds, "We're going to be doing more new work. We have the American premiere of Luminosity [by British playwright Nick Stafford] at the end of [PRC's 2003-2004 season]. We're ready to do more new work, and we're in the position now where we can get the premiere rights. People are interested in this theater as a place to do their work.
"These are times that call for new work," Hammond argues. "It's a time of major change in the world. That's when new voices happen and new kinds of theater emerge."
PRC's longtime artistic director says the plot of A Prayer for Owen Meany can be summed up in the second half of a single Bible verse, Luke 18:8 "[W]hen the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" (NIV).
"Owen Meany [guest artist Jeff Gurner] is a boy who never grows up, whose voice never changes, and who believes that he's the instrument of God and that he's been put on the earth for a purpose," Hammond says. "His journey takes place through the 1950s and 1960s; and he is, in fact, the instrument of God and he has been put in that time and place for a purpose. His best friend, John Wheelwright [guest artist Matthew Floyd Miller], has a destiny that's linked to Owen's.
"Owen is the voice of faith — real faith," Hammond says, "in a world that's losing its moral center. And it's not too much to say he is really a version of the Second Coming and what would happen if that happened in America today — or at least in the recent past."
Hammond says the other characters in A Prayer for Owen Meany include Owen's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Meany (PRC company members Ray Dooley and Tandy Cronyn); John's mother, Tabitha Wheelwright (guest artist Vicki Van Tassel); John's Grandmother Wheelwright (PRC's Joan Darling); two different clergymen, Rector Wiggins (PRC's Kenneth P. Strong) and the Rev. Merrill (PRC's Jeffrey Blair Cornell); and various other characters. (Ray Dooley doubles as Dr. Dolder, Ken Strong doubles as Major Rawls, Tandy Cronyn doubles as Mitzi Lish, and PRC's Julie Fishell plays the dual roles of Lydia and a Nun.)
"They all interact with this strange creature [Owen Meany] who has appeared among them," Hammond says.
Besides Hammond and Bent, PlayMakers' production team for this American premiere includes set and costume designer Bill Clarke, lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger, and sound designer M. Anthony Reimer.
Director David Hammond relishes working with dramatist Simon Bent to fine-tune A Prayer for Owen Meany for American audiences. Staging this thought-provoking new drama "is not a challenge," Hammond says. "It's a joy and an adventure."
Hammond is a veteran of a number of other "premieres" in which the director and the playwright worked hand in hand.
"If it's a professional playwright, [this collaborative process] is a joy," Hammond says. "It's a joy having Simon here. It's about the work in front of you on the floor, and a professional playwright understands that. [The playwright's presence] is an addition to the room; it's not an intrusion."
David Hammond claims, "A play only exists in production; it does not exist on the page. What exists on the page is a script. The playwright brings the script, and the actors create the play with guidance. If the playwright and the director are both there, they are looking at the creation happening in front of them and trying to help it along.
"What has been very gratifying to me," Hammond reveals, "is that Simon and I always have the same notes. It's only difficult — and it's very rare among professionals — if the playwright has imagined... a performance rather than imagining the world of the play.
"My experience with professional playwrights — for example, Tennessee Williams — is that they relish being in the room while a performance is created and that they love the adventure and collaborate," says Hammond, who served as associate director for one of Williams' last (and still unpublished) plays, This Is, when it premiered at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco in the 1970s.
Hammond says, "Mr. Williams always went with the cast in front of him. He didn't have a picture in his head of how the performance would be. He knew his characters and had a picture in his head of the characters, and the characters would change. He would even adjust dialogue to better fit the actor."
In reviewing the National Theatre production of A Prayer for Owen Meany, Michael Billington of The Guardian wrote: "... [W]hat comes across is the strangeness of the tale in which the narrator, John Wheelwright, looks back from the vantage point of Canada in the 80s on a five foot saviour he grew up with in New Hampshire from 1953 to 1968. His friend has a wrecked voice and a tiny body but, from the moment Meany accidentally kills John's mother with a baseball shot, the narrator accepts him at his own valuation as a second Messiah....
"Meany is used," Billington claims, "as a means of exposing not just the hypocrisies of small town life but the larger follies of post-war America. Like Lenny Bruce whom he eventually impersonates, Meany is a moralist let loose in a godless world. As the story unfolds it offers an epic vision of America."
In The Evening Standard, Nicholas de Jongh declared: "You do not need an iota of religious faith — and I write as a practising agnostic — to be enticed, enthralled and emotionally wrenched by this beautiful recreation for the stage of John Irving's epic American novel. The final scene, in which Meany's prophecy of his own death begins to move stealthily towards its terrible, heroic realisation, casts a spell of spine chilling eeriness. I have never read A Prayer for Owen Meany, but Simon Bent's adaptation is a triumph of elegant compression."
In Theatreworld, Philip Fisher wrote: "The play thrives on dramatic tensions. At almost any moment, the good will be juxtaposed with the bad, although it is not always certain which is which. This adds to an intimate drawing of the relationship between Owen, with his certain Catholic upbringing, and his great friend, disciple and chronicler, Johnny Wheelwright.... By contrast, [Wheelwright] is a man who searches for but cannot find religious faith."
Fisher adds, "Simon Bent takes considerable trouble over his scene setting in the period up to the first of the two intervals. This means that the rhythm is rather slow but the investment pays off as the characters and the plot develops. This is far more than just the tale of a 5 foot tall boy (smaller than the Thanksgiving turkey or his own baseball bat) who is destined never to grow up. There is much theological debate and the satire on religious frippery can be hilarious. This reaches its peak in a scene which combines the Nativity with A Christmas Carol. The TV style evangelists, Rectum (sic) Wiggins and his wife Barb are also perfect.
"In addition," Fisher says, "the play attempts to comment on the history of the United States over the period of Owen's life, from the end of the Second World War to the riotous year of 1968. This adds real depth and also forms an integral part of the plot."
Warning: This show contains explicit language and profanity.
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents A Prayer for Owen Meany Wednesday-Saturday, Oct. 15-18, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 19, at 2 p.m.; Tuesday-Saturday, Oct. 21-25, Oct. 28-Nov. 1, and Nov. 4-8, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 26 and Nov. 2 and 9, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $20-$32, except $40 opening night (Oct. 18) and $10 Tuesday Community Night. (Note: PRC offers discounts for seniors, students, and youth.) 919/962-PLAY (7529) or email@example.com. PlayMakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org/pdffiles/Owen_pr.pdf. National Theatre: http://www.nt-online.org/?lid=1189 [inactive 12/03] . NT Education Workpack: http://website-archive.nt-online.org/education/workpacks/owen_meany_workpack.pdf [inactive 12/03].