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An Almost Holy Picture

Morse, McDonald and Mayer here form a winning trifecta. This four-part soliloquy limning a man's faith, despair and redemptive love may be too somber to draw huge audiences, but those fortunate enough to witness it won't soon forget it.

Morse, McDonald and Mayer here form a winning trifecta. This four-part soliloquy limning a man’s faith, despair and redemptive love may be too somber to draw huge audiences, but those fortunate enough to witness it won’t soon forget it.

Heather McDonald’s script abounds with intelligence, imagery and emotion, and David Morse brings it to intense life under the circumspect direction of Michael Mayer in its world premiere.

Morse (“Boomer” Morrison on “St. Elsewhere”) spends about two hours alone onstage detailing the life of Samuel Gentle, a former minister who for 21 years has tended the grounds for the ironically named Church of the Holy Comforter in New England.

Gentle has spent his life trying to define the God in whom he puts his faith, attempting to reconcile the idea of a loving overseer with life’s many tragedies. Gentle believes he’s being tested by God, and he fears he’s “failing the test.”

Such a theme, of course, is as old as religion. But McDonald’s clarity of vision brings fresh insights.

Still suffering with the memory of a tragic accident, Gentle is forced into a new crisis that will shape the rest of his life: His daughter is born with a rare affliction that causes her body to be covered with hair. Such disfigurement , he learns, is passed on by the opposite-sex parent.

Morse, traversing the stone walkways of Michelle Riel’s excellent set and using his actions effectively and economically, vivifies Gentle’s quiet agony and overwhelming love for his spirited child. Even more, he personifies the people he’s describing so well that they almost seem to be sharing the stage.

Mayer’s sensitive staging is supplemented by outstanding tech support. There’s Riel’s set, with its patch of dirt, small pond and props concealed until needed. Kevin Adams’ lighting appropriately ranges from subdued to so vital that it could be another character.

Mitchell Greenhill’s sound effects work for transitions and dramatic effects, and Norah L. Switzer’s earth-tone costuming captures Gentle’s practicality.

It’s not an easy journey, for performer or observer. Audience’s rapt focus, with pin-drop silence, provided the strongest testament to the production’s ability to engross.

An Almost Holy Picture

Mandell Weiss Forum; 384 seats; $ 34 top

  • Production: LA JOLLA -- La Jolla Playhouse presents a two-act drama by Heather McDonald. Directed by Michael Mayer.
  • Crew: Set, Michelle Riel; costumes, Norah L. Switzer; lighting, Kevin Adams; sound, Mitchell Greenhill; dramaturgy, Robert Blacker; stage manager, Wendy Beaton. Opened Sept. 17, 1995. Reviewed Sept. 26 (runs through Oct. 15). Running time: 1 HOUR, 55 MIN.
  • With: Cast: David Morse.
  • Music By: