"An Almost Holy Picture," which had its world premiere Sunday night at the La Jolla Playhouse, performs something of a miracle. It is a one-man drama that offers a deep sense of theater rich with incident (though nothing much happens), and it is filled with people (though they're all off stage).
With not a word out of place nor a wasted gesture, the play creates a world of feeling as poignantly human as something by Tennessee Williams, whose play "The Glass Menagerie" is invoked as a touchstone by the only person we actually meet.
This is not to say Heather McDonald, who wrote "An Almost Holy Picture," writes anything like Williams or that the tone of her play in any way resembles his. On the evidence of this thrilling production, she possesses a compelling voice entirely her own, a finished style and an understanding of human nature that you expect from an artist at the top of her game.
And the performance of David Morse as Samuel Gentle, the reflective groundskeeper for the Church of Holy Comforter, leaves nothing to be desired. The tall, round-faced actor, best known for his work in the TV series "St. Elsewhere," plays the role with a tragic poise and comic serenity.
Gentle, who wanders the flagstone paths of the church garden, begins by relating a tale of his youth. He and his profoundly religious father were walking across a cranberry bog on Cape Cod when they heard a commanding whisper: "Follow me." Nine years later at 18, Gentle tells us, he did just that, going off to "follow the mystery" by becoming a priest.
"I was full of longing, an essential stage . . . an arrow," he says of that "first assignment" in the high New Mexico desert where he is sent to run a youth camp and where he seeks a relationship with God that never seems to materialize, despite the biblical fertility of the desert.
There Gentle meets an Indian woman who helps him run the camp and lets him in on her heavenly visions. "I think of God as someone I can abuse and will abuse me back," he describes her as saying. "So it is a relationship. Got it?"
Her remark lays the foundation for everything that follows, resonating with the irony and humor that leavens the play throughout--even as we hear of accidents that kill the innocent, miscarriages of divine justice, human anguish and cruelty. She curses God--"To hell with you!"--and her imprecation becomes Gentle's own.
He moves to New England, angry at the apparent absence of a caring divinity but resigned to his loss, and takes up the groundskeeper job he has held for the past 21 years. A believer in the Hopi "theory of fours"--it holds that there are four transformative experiences in life, and he has had three--Gentle waits for the fourth. Perhaps God will reveal himself.
"Deep things do not come suddenly," notes the bishop, offering his wisdom over morning coffee while chatting about the Red Sox. As Gentle's tale unfolds, we learn of his wife, Miriam, an anthropology professor who is an amateur actress during summer vacations on the Cape, and their yearned-for child, Ariel, who is born with a rare, inexplicable condition, probably genetic. She is covered "in the lightest golden down," we are told, which gives her a luminous bodily halo.
God-fearing yet Godforsaken, Gentle drops a bean into a large glass jar every day, counting the days of Ariel's life with the tender affection of a devoted father. By now he is up to 3,427 beans. Her unique beauty is both an exaltation and a torment.
Morse's quietly mesmeric performance and McDonald's uncommonly fine writing had the opening-night crowd on the edge of its seats, swooning with anticipation in the first act. At the end of the second it had us up on our feet, and rightly so, applauding in grateful recognition not of ourselves but of this masterful work of art.
Gorgeously staged and produced, with lighting and a sound design woven into Gentle's monologue like an interactive creature responding to his moods, "An Almost Holy Picture" sets a brilliant standard for new plays that other Southland theaters will find hard to top.
* "An Almost Holy Picture," La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Forum, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla. Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m. Sun., 7 p.m.; matinees Sat. and Sun., 2 p.m. Ends Oct. 15. $23-34. (619) 550-1010. Running time 2 hours.