by Richard Dodds
What's the point of praying to a god you're pretty sure doesn't exist? Not much, perhaps, but then again, it couldn't hurt. Kate Fodor's 100 Saints You Should Know weaves together several stories, with their characters colliding at critical times, in a thoughtfully entertaining comedy-drama that poses eternal questions knowing full well there is not a chance in hell of answering them.
Theatre Rhino is concluding its current season with the area premiere of rising playwright Fodor's 100 Saints, seen in New York in 2007 and gradually spreading its way to regional theaters across the country. Its appeal is easy to understand, with characters and storylines that are easily accessible but that also possess some quirks that gently distinguish them from their prototypes. Director John Fisher's production at Thick House has a cast that understands how the characters fit into the enveloping drama, and it has been staged with sensitivity to the frequent changes in dramatic and comedic currents.
Because the taciturn, clearly unhappy Father Matthew, a Catholic priest on sabbatical, is in both the opening and closing scenes, and it is to him the other characters turn despite his I'm-on-a-break demurring, his story might be considered the play's centerpiece. But the play's other figures have lives beyond Father Matthew, which we see in distinct vignettes.
And because Father Matthew's enforced holiday has come after the discovery of several artistically posed adult nude male photos he has ripped from a library book, the pedophilia scandals are on both our and other characters' minds before he actually shows us the inoffensive George Platt Lynes photos he has purloined. "You can be called to God by beauty," he says, "and you can be led away from God by beauty." He doesn't actually want to have sex with these vintage black-and-white men, he tries to explain, as much as somehow inhabit their bodies.
Though Father Matthew feels unworthy of any sort of veneration, the aura of his priesthood is still a magnet to those with problems larger than they feel they can sort themselves. The cleaning woman at the rectory is being driven mad by her bitter daughter, and both seek out Father Matthew's reluctantly forthcoming guidance. Even the kid who delivers the groceries comes looking to absolutely the wrong person for answers to his sexual confusion. And then there is Matthew's mother, in whose home he has taken refuge, who knows just which buttons to push as she wavers between pride and resentment in her son's spiritual calling.
The summary above may not seem to provide obvious sources of humor, but it comes abundantly in the foolish games these people play. A round of Scrabble between Matthew and his mother can literally spell out the comedy behind their eternal clashes. The cleaning lady, named Theresa, explains the oddly paired specialties of the saint for whom she is named. And when Theresa's daughter and the delivery boy meet, there is comic mayhem – at least for a while.
Each member of the cast delivers a performance that draws us into his or her individual world that seems to them so out of sync with any paths to happiness. There is a centering presence to Wylie Herman's calm, forlorn depiction of Matthew, which, ironically, becomes a cipher's calm in which the other characters imagine answers to their big questions. Theresa, the cleaning woman, finds a warm and open interpreter in Ann Lawler, as well as the motherly patience of a, well, saint, as she deals with her shrilly demanding daughter so vividly evoked in Kim Stephenson's performance. Michael Rosen is goofily inviting as the delivery boy, and then there is the wonderful Tamar Cohn, who verges on a bravura mother-from-hell intensity but finds a way to hold onto shreds of sympathy before fully pulling us in at the very end.
Jon Wai-keung Lowe's set comfortably provides for the play's numerous locales, which reflect the seemingly disparate tales that are unfolding. When they all come together, it's both tragic and redemptive. Now let us pray, tentatively.
100 Saints You Should Know will run at Thick House through June 17. Tickets are $10-$30. Call (800) 838-3006 or go to www.therhino.org.