By Simon Bent. Adapted from the novel by John Irving. Directed by Ian Farthing. An Ensemble Theatre Company production, presented by Pacific Theatre. At Pacific Theatre on Saturday, January 26. Continues until February 9
What works in a novel doesn’t always work on-stage.
British playwright Simon Bent’s adaptation of A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving’s best-selling novel, does carry the bones of Irving’s story about a small, strange-voiced boy with an unshakable certainty about his purpose in life. But it also lards on countless extraneous scenes and characters that have absolutely zero function in advancing the plot, which is particularly irksome given that the show clocks in at two-and-a-half hours.
Irving’s narrator, and the play’s central consciousness, is John Wheelwright, a middle-aged man remembering his youthful friendship with Owen Meany. Two crucial aspects of Owen’s character present challenges to a theatrical interpretation: he’s tiny, and he has a “wrecked voice”. (In the novel, Owen’s dialogue is rendered in all-caps.)
Under Ian Farthing’s direction, Chris Lam gives Owen a piercing falsetto; it’s annoying, but it’s supposed to be, and it’s a credit to Lam that we actually get used to the sound. Owen’s diminutive size is suggested by an early classroom scene in which Owen sits like Thumbelina on a chair three times the size of the ones his classmates occupy.
These are successful translations from page to stage. Vastly less successful is playwright Bent’s inclusion of scenes and characters that have nothing to do with the central story. Early in the play, a Thanksgiving dinner at John’s house is a frustrating and clumsily staged collection of entrances and exits by people with little clear connection to the plot. Owen’s performances as the infant Jesus in his school’s Nativity play and as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in a community theatre production of A Christmas Carol are overlapped in a manner that is deeply confusing—but at least when Owen sees the date of his own death on Scrooge’s gravestone, something is finally at stake. It’s only taken till intermission.
Farthing’s large cast does a good job with Bent’s script, despite its deficiencies. Tariq Leslie’s John is warm and grounded as he shares his memories and the deep questions of faith that still trouble him, and Lam makes Owen, a character who is bizarre by definition, achingly real. Alexis Kellum-Creer and Tanja Dixon-Warren, as Owen’s mother and grandmother, both create nuanced characterizations.
And for all the filler along the way, Owen’s climactic act of heroism still moved me to tears. That’s an achievement. But you’re better off reading the novel.