Real-life miracles are hard to come by, but with the current rage for angels, producers are scouring the archives for signs of divine intervention. A heavily fictionalized recounting of a real-life event that still defies explanation, “The Staircase” is a fascinating anecdote stretched to fit what are evidently thought to be modern tastes.
Legend has it that architects designing the Chapel of the Sisters of Loretto in Santa Fe, N.M., forgot to include a staircase to the choir loft. Adding one to the finished chapel would be difficult financially, and impractical in terms of construction. A wanderer came to town, the legend continues, and constructed a circular staircase with neither nails nor central support — a feat that conventional wisdom declared an architectural impossibility.
While not as famous as, say, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the “Miraculous Staircase,” still standing after more than 100 years, is one of the Southwest’s most interesting tourist attractions, and one of Santa Fe’s most popular.
Barbara Hershey stars — winningly, if not entirely convincingly — as Sister Madalyn, fighting to get the chapel into operation, with the choir, before she dies of some unnamed illness. William Petersen is seen as Joad, a stranger who seems to have wandered off the set of a Sergio Leone Western and who may have been (as some would have it) the personification of St. Joseph, patron saint of carpenters.
Comic relief, perhaps not entirely intentional, is provided by Justin Louis as the chapel’s architect and David Clennon as the contractor, both of whom would like to see Joad dead.
Review tape had a washed-out look rendering the Santa Fe-area locations somewhat pointless; they might as well have shot it in Santa Clarita. And there are surprisingly few Latinos and Native Americans around for New Mexico in 1876. Or today, for that matter.
While the legend raises questions — for one, “How did they install a choir loft without a way to get up there in the first place?” — they’re avoided here. And, even allowing the writers creative license in coming up with a backstory, it’s not easy to accept the kind of research that allows Mother Madalyn’s physician to slip her a couple of aspirin more than 20 years before the medication was invented. If that detail is historically accurate, maybe the unnamed doctor is worthy of his own telepic.