“The Healing,” the new play by MacArthur Foundation genius grant winner Samuel D. Hunter, was written specifically for Theater Breaking Through Barriers, a company of disabled actors who really lucked out with this smart and sensitive piece about the harm done to vulnerable people in the name of religion. The playwright dealt with the same theme — the dangers of religious mania — in “The Whale,” but the cruelty seems more heartless when the victims are so young.
Shannon DeVido and David Harrell give impressive performances as Sharon and Donald, mourners who have traveled to a small town near Idaho Falls to attend their friend Zoe’s funeral and stayed behind to clean out her cluttered home. (Shout-out to props designer Charles Bowden for the hoarders’ heaven of Disney character figurines, porcelain angels, ceramic frogs and all the unopened packages containing more of the same.)
Sharon and Donald, who haven’t seen one another for some time, are making desultory conversation while watching the Shopping Channel, not from any acquisitive urge but because they’ve lost the remote. The aimless dialogue Hunter has written is pitch-perfect for this languid moment of weary exhaustion.
Donald idly wonders about the unknown woman who wore a red pantsuit to the services. “Who wears a red pantsuit to a funeral ?” he wants to know. Sharon, who’s been handling “all this funeral crap” for the past three days, and paying for it, too, presses an unimportant point about the difference between a casket and a coffin.
The matter of the conversation is meaningless, even amusing. But the interplay between DeVido and Harrell captures the tone of those dead spaces when people have nothing to say to one another, but don’t want to be alone. And whenever Hunter allows his characters to reveal something of themselves, the actors make these shifts with smooth subtlety.
One thing we learn is that Donald is the sensitive one, surprised and saddened to learn that Zoe, who seems to have committed suicide, had no family and few friends in town. It’s also clear that Sharon, a successful entrepreneur with control issues, is seething with suppressed rage. A wheelchair user with a spinal condition, she’s both furious and humiliated when she has trouble finding an aide to fly home with her.
But her anger goes deeper than that, and when other friends arrive at Zoe’s place and pick up the conversation, it becomes clear what’s holding them together. Each of them is disabled in one way or another, and as children they spent summers at a Christian camp. After years of listening to the zealous Christian Scientist woman who ran the camp “telling all of us that if we prayed hard enough, Jesus would heal our broken little bodies,” the poor kids came away brainwashed.
There’s more to the plot — including some heart-to-heart scenes between the troubled Sharon and Zoe’s ghost. And although he tends to dry up when switching from two-character scenes to “crowd” scenes of three or more, Hunter keeps us involved in the confessional material. Unfortunately, the storytelling drags under Stella Powell-Jones’ plodding direction — although to be fair, the stage is a bit small to handle two wheelchairs, and that full-sized couch planted dead-center doesn’t help the stage traffic.