Rosebud Theatre presents An Almost Holy Picture
At the Studio Theatre through September 2
Three and a half stars
Review by Stephen Hunt
The best ministers are storytellers. It’s not too difficult to figure out why. Good stories draw you in. Good stories build empathy. Good stories are the best explanation of who we are, and why we do the things we do. The best way to teach anything is through a story.
An Almost Holy Picture, Rosebud’s studio theatre summer offering, is one big sermon – hosted by a man named Samuel Gentle, who happens to be a former minister – in the delicate art of storytelling.
It’s a solo show, by playwright Heather McDonald, that takes us inside the somewhat hermetically sealed-off world of Massachusetts church groundskeeper Gentle (David Snider), who spends his days tending to his garden, his graves – “I’m the groundskeeper for the Church of the Holy Comforter,” he says – and his wounds.
“There are three experiences that shaped my idea of God,” Gentle announces at the top of the show, before sharing them with us.
There was the time he was nine, walking through a cranberry bog in the northeast with his father. There was a bus trip in New Mexico, when, as the minister of a congregation there, he found himself caught in the middle of a tragedy. There’s the birth of Ariel, his daughter, after a trio of heartbreaks – only with a twist, in the form of a rare medical condition that Ariel is born with.
Snider’s Gentle is a restrained, almost cautious, storyteller. As he recounts his trio of holy epiphanies, he seems almost fragile, as if he needs to hear them almost more than he needs to share them with us.
“Grace,” he says, “enters the soul through a wound.”
(David Snider in An Almost Holy Picture, at Rosebud’s Studio Theatre through September 2. Photo courtesy Morris Ertman)
The thing that connects Gentle’s stories is his theory, learned during his stay in the desert two decades earlier, that the Hopi Indians live by a “theory of fours”. He’s already had three brushes with God. An Almost Holy Picture explains s the fourth.
There’s a very written quality to An Almost Holy Picture that is admirable, often quite literary, but sometimes removes an aspect of theatricality from the experience.When Gentle tells a story, it’s through the rear view lens of a distant moment in the past, filled in with the insight he’s gained in the ensuing years, rather than plunging us into each experience as if it were happening in the moment.
The upside of the somewhat meditative approach is that it produces a number of profound observations, as Gentle retraces the fourth moment, which involves Ariel, a young photographer named Angel Martinez, a summer production of The Glass Menagerie featuring his wife Marion, and a photo exhibition that delivers Samuel a genuine wound with its depiction of photos featuring Ariel.
The pace and rhythm of the play are unhurried, as Gentle rambles on like a lonely graveyard employee while tending to his perennials – flowers, he explains, that only appear to die every year, only to resurrect again the following spring.
There’s a mystery to be uncovered as well – namely, Samuel’s puzzlement at the ways of the Plains Indians, who, he explains, measure a man by what he gives away.
Samuel can’t make sense of that value system, and An Almost Holy Picture is his way of discovering what he gave away, and what grace he can take from his loss.
Throughout the show, Snider does an exceptional job of letting the audience come to the world of Samuel Gentle, instead of forcing it upon us. But why wouldn’t he? Snider looks and sounds as if he would be a fine minister, should he ever decide to trade in pounding the boards as an actor for manning the pulpit. That becomes apparent in the play’s closing moments, as Samuel finally comes to terms with the fourth time he experienced God.
Or, as Gentle puts it early in the show: “We are told a story,” he says, “and then we tell our own.”
(Feature image: David Snider. Photo courtesy Morris Ertman)
Stephen Hunt is the 2017 Rosebud Theatre Writer-in-Residence