Questioning man's relationship with God is certainly viable subject matter for drama--Shakespeare did it, Samuel Beckett did it, August Wilson is still doing it. But when a company brings a predetermined set of answers to the questions, it runs the risk of seeming preachy or heavy-handed.
Lamb's Players Theatre's San Diego premiere of Marsha Norman's "Traveler in the Dark" is both preachy and heavy-handed.
Which isn't to say the production has no value. It does. For audiences seeking affirmation of Christian faith, "Traveler" is a pleasant, touching parable. For those less certain of their spiritual convictions, this show might seem one-sided and simplistic.
Although the company doesn't always choose to portray religious subjects in its productions, the Lamb's Players charter reads: "The ensemble's mission is to explore the integration of faith and art . . . a commonality of Christian faith underscores the company's respect for their art and the way they work with one another."
But the troupe's Christian leanings go beyond underscoring the message in "Traveler"--they drown out the conflict within the story. This staging, directed by Deborah Gilmour Smyth, seems less an exploration of faith than a moralistic Sunday school lesson.
Lamb's Players Theatre artistic director Robert Smyth plays the protagonist Sam, a man who used to be a devout believer but has rejected God and devoted his life to medicine.
As the play opens, Sam is mourning the loss of childhood friend Mavis. Sam, a surgeon, operated on Mavis and failed to save her. When his mother died, Sam gave up on God; with Mavis' death, he has given up on himself.
As a result, Sam wants a divorce so he can run away from his life. Sam's wife, Glory (Kerry Meads), father, Everett (Gordon Benson), and son, Stephen (Erik Christian), try to persuade him to stay with his family.
The play itself breeds a certain degree of moralizing. It continually raises such questions as "Is there more to life than what we see? Is there a God?" For the three characters who answer yes, there is hope of happiness. For the one character who answers no, well, stick around for Act II and the questions come up again.
Smyth delivers an arresting yet problematic performance. A superb craftsman, he seethes with energy and passion from start to finish. Sam is a conflict magnet--he engages in arguments whenever he can and carries them through to their logical conclusions.
Unfortunately, Smyth's portrayal of Sam isn't the least bit likable. Director Deborah Gilmour Smyth slanted the production so that Sam is more than just the perpetual heavy; he's a complete jerk. Sam goes out of his way to ruin everyone else's day, to shatter his son's illusions, to embarrass his preacher-father, to insult his wife.
If the Lamb's company could have made Sam's character seem somehow sympathetic, it might have had an engaging, textured production on it hands. As it stands now, this staging is pure allegory.
The other three characters in the play are similarly one-dimensional. Glory, Everett and Stephen are goodness personified. They put up with more than a little of Sam's guff, and they keep coming back for more.
At one point, after brutalizing his wife with insults, Sam tells Glory that he's doing his wife a favor by leaving. "I'm offering you a way out," he tells her. "I want a way in," she responds. Her persistence is hard to believe.
Meads could have easily played Glory with a more confrontational demeanor. At one point she tells Sam: "I am so tired of your mind. You would have been so much better off without it." In step with the rest of the production, Meads' character tosses this harsh, potentially explosive line aside. Rather than attack her attacker, Glory tries to make a joke. Glory, it seems, can't be mean-spirited because Sam is already the play's mean-spirited character.
In this production, Lamb's Players apparently doesn't want to deviate from a black-and-white, good-versus-evil mentality.
Unfortunately, "Traveler in the Dark" depends on various shades of gray.
'Traveler in the Dark'
By Marsha Norman. Director, Deborah Gilmour Smyth. Sets, Ocie Robinson. Costumes, Veronica Murphy Smith. Lights, Mike Buckley. Stage manager, Jerry Reynolds. With Robert Smyth, Kerry Meads, Erik Christian and Gordon Benson. Wednesdays-Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. and Sunday matinees on Aug. 25 and Sept. 8 at 2 p.m. At the Lamb's Players Theatre, 500 Plaza Blvd., National City. Tickets $14-$18. 474-4542.