REVIEW: A Prayer for Owen Meany

When the Playhouse in the Park announced this year’s season, I considered reading John Irving’s novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, so that I would be up to speed.  But then I decided to experience it as a play – with no other context.

I kinda wish I’d read the book first.  (I actually started it last night, immediately once I got home from the show.)

Told from the perspective of “John Wheelwright,” the best friend of “Owen Meany” this is a story of friendship and faith. It’s a coming of age piece through the innocent 1950s, the turbulent 1960s, and into the Vietnam era.  Wheelwright is played by Jeremy Webb, who anchors the show.  His subtle transitions from boy to man throughout the production are imperative and he handles it with great skill.  We learn about Meany, see him interact with various peers, adults, and sometimes spiritual beings.  And we have many questions about him through the climax of the play.  And yet even more mystery unfolds as the play concludes.

This story has so many layers, so much depth, that it’s nearly impossible to imagine it as a stageplay.  How would you make the diminutive title character appear as he’s written?  How would an actor play that role, especially vocally, in a way that captures the spirit of the novel?  But Simon Bent, who adapted the novel into the script, has taken this monster of a book and captured the essence and spirit of the characters and the story well enough.

I’ve heard from multiple people who’d seen previews that they weren’t sure what to think after seeing it.  I now know what they mean.  It’s a very entertaining production. The show clips along at a good pace and despite the well over two-hour run time, it’s never boring.  It’s also very funny and sweet.  But there some elements that don’t work, too.

Also, because of my unfamiliarity with the novel, some of the mystical elements were jarring.  The audience responded with laughter at moments that I felt were serious; I think it’s because they didn’t quite understand what was happening.  They weren’t grasping the gravity of the scene.

All of that said, I really did love the show.  I may try to go back and see it again.  And I’m definitely reading the book now.

Director Blake Robison does a marvelous job keeping the show moving, making good use of the space, and ensuring his ensemble play distinctly different characters throughout the various eras in Meany’s life.  The moving set pieces, the lighting, the sound cues, all support the action on stage.  And what a crew of actors!

Sean Mellott (“Owen Meany”) must speak in a high-pitched falsetto for almost the entire show.  I think Mellott is a terrific actor.  In fact, there’s a scene late in the second act where he transforms into a real live well-known figure from the past.  I sat, mesmerized, blown away by Mellott’s talent.  Local favorites like Annie Fitzpatrick, Jared Joplin, and Kate Wilford shine along side imports like Mellott, John Lescault, Gardner Reed, and Matt Mundy.  All members of the ensemble are extraordinary, bringing nuance and unique characterizations to even the minorest of parts.

A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY is one of those shows that will definitely appeal to fans of the source material.  And for those of us new to the story, it’s an entertaining and overwhelming piece of very good theatre.

I really do think I’ll try to see it again.

A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY runs through October 1st in the Marx Theatre at the Playhouse in the Park.  Tickets and more information are available here.