As the Mad Hatter said to Alice when she sat down to tea: “No room! No room!” John Belluso raises disquieting questions about religious faith, journalistic skepticism and the exploitation of the disabled in “Henry Flamethrowa,” his mordant play about a Catholic family that may or may not have a miracle worker in its bosom. But the implausible plot, crammed with extraneous detail, proves too narrow a platform for a satisfying debate on these hot-topic issues. Characters also are left largely unexamined, their complex motivations crowded off the stage by showy confrontations and busy plot contrivances.
Given the shameful role religious politics played in the Terry Schiavo case, Studio Dante couldn’t have found a more incendiary theatrical property than this 2001 play (originally produced by Trinity Rep) about a comatose child said to have miraculous healing powers. Based on a true case in Worcester, Mass., drama presents the (unseen) spectacle of a little girl named Lilja, lying in a coma for nine years after a swimming pool accident, who causes religious statues and crucifixes to bleed a healing ointment of oil and blood. In the back yard, (unseen) mobs clamor for the oil, which is said to effect miraculous (unseen) cures.
Although these melodramatic events take place offstage, there is plenty left to dramatize. First, there’s the tense relationship between Lilja’s father, Peter Rhamelower (Tim Daly), a devout Catholic who contends his daughter was visited by the Virgin Mary and swears by the miracles, and his 16-year-old son, Henry (Jake M. Smith), who confides to his good friend, the Devil, that he is going to pull the plug on his sister’s respirator. Then there’s the tension between Peter and Beth (Yvonne Woods), an NPR reporter who views the whole thing as a sham. Finally, there is the standoff between Beth and Henry, who challenges the journalist to help him murder his sister, “cleansing her, burning all of her miracles to the ground” to end her suffering and put a stop to her exploitation.
Belluso holds strong views on this subject, and there is real passion (if much too much precocity) in the lyrical frenzy in which Henry unburdens himself to Beth and to the Devil, with whom he corresponds via email. Although barely out of his teens himself, Smith has an assured technique and the sensitivity to give credence to an anguished kid’s bizarre notions. Attention should be paid to this young thesp.
The grownups don’t fare as well in Nick Sandow’s unbalanced production. With his boyish good looks and earnest charm, TV star Daly couldn’t be more sympathetic as Peter, a lonely widower who needs desperately to believe in his daughter’s miraculous powers. But the character is woefully undefined in the script — is he a religious fraud or is he not? — and helmer Sandow makes it worse by giving him confusing identity markers. Judging from Victoria Imperioli’s overdressed set of his home — a religious kitsch-cluttered shrine to bad taste — Peter would seem to be a solid, if not overly bright working-class stiff. But Daly’s refined presence and well-spoken manner are far too intellectually upscale for this social setting, destabilizing the integrity of the character and casting doubt on his simple religious beliefs.
Woods is on surer ground with her sleek portrayal of Beth, a Manhattan sophisticate appalled by the primitive life forms in the social boonies. But Beth’s journalistic techniques are as absurd as the unrealistic plot contrivances that make her an active player in the household’s dysfunctional domestic games. And while she and Henry exchange the play’s only interesting dialogue about matters of faith and ethics, the duplicitous role she’s forced to play damns her as a fraud and a phony.
Belluso can write, and there’s no doubt about the earnestness of his convictions. But he needs to come up with characters who can function as more than mere mouthpieces.