THEATER REVIEW | Open Window Theatre’s “The Potting Shed” questions religion and faith

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I’m starting to wonder if Open Window Theatre is critic-proof. Because it almost doesn’t matter what I say here. If you’re a fan of Open Window Theatre, then you’re already going and you’re not going to be dissuaded. Now in the middle of their fourth season, they’re expanding their space and operating on a budget of nearly $250,000. They’ve got a strong base of audience support. Nearly all their money comes from individuals rather than big corporations or foundations. Every show I’ve seen there, the audience has risen for a standing ovation at the end. Some of their shows have charmed me, some have baffled me, but their audience doesn’t care. There is a fan base for this theater that doesn’t feel served by other theaters in town. When Open Window puts up a production, this audience feels like they’re seeing their own story onstage in a way that they don’t get anywhere else. It’s theater with an overtly Christian religious bent to it. As someone who regularly pines for a more nuanced discussion on stage of religion and faith and their place in modern life, Open Window should be right up my alley. I really do appreciate what they’re trying to do here. I just wish the theater was better. Their current production of Graham Greene’s The Potting Shed is a great example of this conundrum.

“Do you think me a monster, too?”
“No, but I think perhaps I’ve been treating the wrong patient.”

Because The Potting Shed looks fantastic. Open Window has found team of designers that knows how to work in their space. The pillars that stand in what can often be the playing space of the production always get incorporated in ways that make them disappear as obstructions. Jane Ryan’s scene design for The Potting Shed is simple, sleek and perfect. The back wall of the sitting room in which much of the action of the play takes place is the outline of the infamous potting shed of the title. The potting shed is never seen in the play itself, but the events which took place in it cast a long shadow that has split the Callifer family in two and irrevocably altered all their lives. So it’s a brilliant touch to have the outline of that potting shed looming over everything that happens in the play. The wall is constructed of vertical slats with just enough space between them for light to peek through. There are empty picture frames on the wall which have projections beamed into them by an unseen projector. The stage ultimately houses several locations, so as the location changes, so do the pictures in the frames. The fireplace can also be boarded up or the curtains drawn. It’s one of the smarter, more versatile set designs I’ve seen in quite some time.

“You were trying to protect someone you love. Here I am just trying to protect myself.”

Noted British novelist Graham Greene had a fair amount of success on Broadway in the 1950s with his forays into playwriting, The Potting Shed being one of them. The Potting Shed is very much a snapshot of its time in American theater. Dramas could actually make a go of it in New York, a writer or theater would think nothing of staging a play with almost a dozen characters in it. I have to admit, it’s always nice to see a play (or a theater company) that doesn’t feel constrained to keep the size of its cast to a mere two or three people. I understand large casts are expensive, but in a family drama such as The Potting Shed, it makes a difference to actually have a family unit big enough for their to be factions on either side of a family issue. Is there a good reason for all these characters and subplots to be there? You could argue either way, I suppose. Extraneous characters and story aren’t my issues with The Potting Shed.  Like many plays of its time, and after, the first act is all wind-up—we’re getting ready for the big reveal of the dark family secret (even though in this case, the secret isn’t in the end that dark at all). The second half of the evening is all about the repercussions of that secret unraveling.

“Who was Lazarus?”
”Someone in a book.”

In a nutshell, the central issue of The Potting Shed is “What happens when a family of atheists is confronted with something that can only be explained as a miracle, and thus evidence that God exists?” Meaty premise, no? The challenge here is that there’s been over 50 years between the original staging of the play and the one that Open Window Theatre is doing now. And in that 50 years, we’ve been subjected to all manner of other deep dark secrets about families and the church, and seen an ever-escalating litany of medical miracles that were once thought impossible. We carry those things with us into the production in 2015. So, like any good audience trying to guess what awful thing might have happened in the potting shed 30 years before the onstage story begins, we imagine all sorts of horrible things. When I tell you one of the characters in the play is a priest, where does your mind immediately and unfortunately go? That doesn’t apply here, but again, a modern-day crowd is going to jump to all sorts of the wrong conclusions.

“You thought you had squeezed out a small drop of faith.”

Noted atheist writer H.C. Callifer is dying. His wife Mary (Meri Golden) is surrounded by supporters—from their fellow atheist and family friend Dr. Baston (Charles Numrich), to her son John (David Denninger), granddaughter Anne (Ali Daniels), and ex-daughter-in-law Sara (Sarah Preissner Stanbary). Notably absent is her other son James Callifer (Jeremy Stanbary), Sara’s former husband. That’s because Mary didn’t invite him, or let him know his father was even ill. Not to worry, precocious young Anne has taken it upon herself to invite James anyway. When he shows up, Mary won’t let James see his father on his deathbed. She feels it would be too upsetting for him. This family definitely has its issues.

“A miracle in a family like ours must be worse than a murder case.”

Something happened in the potting shed 30 years ago when James was just a teenager which caused a rift in the family. James became persona non grata in his own boyhood home. The problem is, James has no recollection of what happened. It has haunted him all his adult life. It’s one of the things that hobbled his marriage to Sara and kept them from being able to make a go of it, though they clearly still care for one another. James now lives with a male roommate, Corner (Jesse Villarreal). (Nope. I thought that, too. That’s not it. Another place a 1950s audience probably wouldn’t think to go.) James also regularly sees a therapist, Dr. Kreuzer (Richard Choate), who is just as frustrated as James that they can’t seem to find the root cause of his troubles. James seems disengaged from life, unable to care. He’s not angry, just numb.

“Is everyone who believes in God mad?

Because James’ niece Anne just can’t leave a puzzle unsolved, she arranges for Mrs. Potter (Gail Ottmar), wife of the former groundskeeper, to come over for a chat. She and her late husband know what happened in the potting shed. So does the unusual choice for the black sheep in this atheist family, H.C.’s brother and James’ uncle, Father William Callifer (Dann Peterson), a priest now being shuffled from parish to parish to keep his drinking problem under wraps. Fr. William’s housekeeper Miss Connolly (Gail Ottmar) tries to keep the priest and liquor apart, and also tries to reignite his sputtering faith in God, but it’s a losing battle.

“Why do we have to sacrifice people?  Why can’t we just let each other be?”

The production struggles a bit out of the gate on the issue of time and place. It’s supposed to be somewhere in England in the 1950s, but neither of those is entirely clear at the start of director Stephen O’Toole’s staging of the play for Open Window. Nothing about the set or costumes definitively places us in the 20th century, and only discussion of telegrams at the beginning gives us much of a clue how far in the past we probably are. Then there’s the issue of the British accents. At first I thought a couple of the actors were just really affected in their speech delivery. Then I realized “Oh, wait, they’re all supposed to be British.” Some of the cast remind us of this more consistently than others.

“We must all avoid sentimentality.”
“We all say that about sentiments we don’t share.”

Spoiler alert: My real issue with the play is what happens in the potting shed and the fallout from it thereafter. Because it doesn’t just make most of the family look like jerks, it makes God look like a jerk. So I start to wonder what the point of The Potting Shed is exactly. Greene was a man of faith. He wasn’t an uncomplicated man and he did have his struggles, but overall his faith was strong and explorations of faith and morality permeated nearly all his writings. The combination of intellect and spirituality is part of what gives his work its staying power. It’s not a simplistic unquestioning faith. It is a faith that is stronger for the questioning. I admire that, quite a lot actually. That’s why it perplexes me that Green’s kind of dropped the ball here in The Potting Shed.

Skip the next two paragraphs if you don’t want to know what happens in the potting shed.

Young James was very close to his uncle William, the priest. Father H.C. mocked both his brother’s faith and his son’s and did everything he could to undermine it. So much so that confused teenage James took his own life—by hanging himself in the potting shed. The groundskeeper and William find poor James and cut him down, but he is quite dead. William pleads with his God to bring James back to life. William offers God anything in return, specifically he offers up the thing he loves most, and his faith. God takes him up on the offer and resurrects James. But, being kind of mean-spirited about it, God not only shakes poor Father William’s faith down to its foundations, he also severs the close ties of William and his surrogate son James. No wonder the poor priest takes to drink. On top of that, God apparently decides that James should also be a spiritual amnesiac, not recalling his own faith, his close ties to his uncle, or even that he was resurrected in the first place. He is condemned for the next 30-odd years to wander around in a haze, wondering why he isn’t getting more out of life. The cherry on top of this deus ex machina sundae is that apparently James’ mother Mary doesn’t think her husband the renowned atheist can handle having a miracle child in the family, so she just drives James out of the family with no explanation. What’s the point of a resurrection if you don’t really get to have a life?

Also, God answers William’s prayer. William is willing to make a sacrifice, and does, and God responds. So how exactly does that screw with William’s faith rather than reinforce it? Sure, God had you pay a price, but your nephew gets to live, so decent trade, right? You, as a priest, have seen a miracle happen in your own family. What’s the problem? Dann Peterson does a really nice job of fleshing out the woes of poor Father William, but I feel like the script is fighting him.

We now resume our spoiler-free review.

Because the most important thing in the play happened 30 years ago, large swaths of The Potting Shed take place through exposition rather than current action. O’Toole’s production and his cast do their best to make all of this active, but it’s a tough haul. Neither atheists or people of faith (or God, for that matter) come off looking terribly good (or smart) here. Denial is the order of the day. Once the truth is out, though, James (and Stanbary’s performance) is transformed, so the truth does at least set one person free. It just doesn’t do a whole lot of other people much good.

“I don’t want eternity.”
“I’ve been there, and I’m not frightened.”

But, like I said at the top, it almost doesn’t matter what I write here. Open Window is serving up a brand of storytelling here that we just don’t see on a lot of other stages around town. And they’re being rewarded handsomely for it. Theater reviews just seem like nitpicking in a situation like that. If Open Window and The Potting Shed are your kind of theater, you should go. If you’re like me, be prepared to struggle with it almost as much as most of the Callifer family on stage do.

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