It’s quite spooky and a little ooky, but “Creature” is no ordinary fright fest. The superstitious fears and horrors Heidi Schreck conjures up in her offbeat historical play about the 15th century English mystic Margery Kempe are largely psychological — and not unfamiliar to any modern woman stressed out by the demands of a new baby and a childish husband. Without denying the significance of religious faith in the intellectual darkness of the Middle Ages, scribe coyly suggests that having mystical visions was a great way for a clever woman to escape her onerous domestic duties and become a celebrity.
Although Schreck has chosen to tell her metaphysical mystery play in an idiom that’s more modern than medieval, helmer Leigh Silverman wisely avoids an anachronistic approach. The stripped-down production style is simplicity itself, which allows the contemporary nature of the play’s central theme — the power of a powerless woman to change her destiny — to come across through careful characterization.
And boy, that Margery, she is some character.
Before giving birth to 14 children, the real Margery Kempe was said to have been “comely,” and Sofia Jean Gomez, the voluptuous beauty who plays her here, is nothing if not comely. But Gomez is also a fine, disciplined actress who carries her intelligence as unselfconsciously as she wears the revealing gowns designed by Theresa Squire. (Purple is her favorite color, Margery tells us as she primps.) Little wonder that her bluff and strapping husband, John (the well-strapped Darren Goldstein), would like to have her back in his bed.
But Margery has just given birth to her first child and the grueling experience has left her addled. Undernourished, weak with fever and possibly experiencing post-partum depression, she leaves her squalling kid in the care of a nurse to open a series of disturbing conversations with Asmodeus, a devil unseen by the rest of the household but quite vivid to us in Will Rogers’ lively portrayal of him.
Margery’s visions turn tricky once she starts communing with Christ himself, who tells her she is to become a saint. But as everyone in the Dark Ages knows for a fact, saints must be chaste, and to the despair of her lusty husband, Margery banishes him from her bed.
With no conjugal chores or kitchen and nursery duties to distract her from herself, her gowns become more opulent and her food tastes more refined. And no well-meaning friend should dare to criticize her excesses. (“Dear Anne, You will never have the grace …”)
As her celebrity grows, Margery also smartens up her act. Her religious pronouncements take on more drama, thanks to the illuminating instruction she receives from the Anchoress Juliana of Norwich (played by that living saint of comic delivery, MaryLouise Burke). “I know you are only a woman, but try to think a little harder,” the wise Anchoress advises her illiterate pupil.
Margery also preens from the slavish attention she demands and receives from the poor, besotted Father Thomas, a simple soul played with infinite sympathy by Jeremy Shamos (“100 Saints You Should Know”), who may forevermore become typecast as a dewy-eyed priest.
The scenes fly beautifully by, even as some of these tableaux remain thematically unconnected to one another — a tribute to Silverman’s assured direction and the almost hypnotic unity of Rachel Hauck’s austere wooden sets and Matt Frey’s soft-wattage candle lighting.
The ending of the play is problematical, in that Margery’s return to her wifely duties seems imperfectly motivated. (It is motivated, actually, but in an offstage scene that cries out to be dramatized.) Even by candlelight, a dramatic denouement demands to be seen.