By Jean Lowerison
Forgiveness, compassion and humor are in short supply these days. That’s one reason playwright Miranda Rose Hall’s lovely new play “The Hour of Great Mercy” (getting its world premiere through March 3 at Diversionary Theatre) struck such a welcome chord with me.
Other reasons are the near-poetic way the play flows, Rosina Reynolds’ fine direction and the excellent cast of five who make this piece resonate with authenticity.
But loneliness reigns in this little Alaskan town where human connection is hard to come by.
The play revolves around two brothers — Jesuit priest Ed (Andrew Oswald) and Roger (Tom Stephenson) — separated five years ago by a tragedy in which Roger’s daughter Rachel died. The irascible Roger has always blamed Ed for it, and the pain is still so extreme that he doesn’t even want to see his brother again. Forget about forgiveness. These days, a grumpy Roger fills his time with a radio show (cleverly called “The Show”) in which he interviews locals, plays music and reports on local doings.
As the play opens, Ed has just left the priesthood and traveled to the imaginary town of Bethlehem, Alaska in an attempt to re-establish communication with his brother. Roger’s wife Maggie (Dana Case) does more than a double-take when she sees Ed in town.
Ed is gay, but never thought that disqualified him from serving in the church, because he believes that “there is nothing on earth more queer than God — so fluid, so encompassing the spectrum, and so devoted to radical love.”
But the mortal Roger is less than interested in forgiveness.
This is not a typical A-to-B-to-C plot, nor is plot the important aspect here.
It’s the portrayal of human need for and struggle toward community that Hall is chronicling, and those are universally engaging.
Ed bumps into Joseph (Patrick Mayuyu), a young gay man in a funk because of a brush-off letter from a presumed boyfriend (or candidate). Joseph, too, is looking for connection.
And so is Irma (Eileen Rivera), an elderly widow from the Philippines, who also lost a daughter to tragedy and now has no one to care for, or to care for her. She is a regular caller to Roger’s show.
Hall spent a year in Alaska as part of a Jesuit-sponsored ministry where she worked in an end-of-life facility. “Mercy” was Hall’s MFA thesis production at Yale School of Drama. Her thesis advisor suggested she write it for her father, who had started out as a musician and became a radio journalist and host of a radio show.
The play’s title refers to the hour when Jesus is said to have died, (about 3 p.m.), thought to be a propitious time to ask for compassion.
A particular shout-out to the tech team is in order. Set designer Kristen Flores and lighting designer Curtis Mueller have created a background that speaks both solitude and beauty that, as Ed describes it, “kind of electrifies the soul.”
Elisa Benzoni’s costumes and Emily Jankowski’s sound design make solid contributions as well.
How will it end? More important is how you will feel when it ends. I felt like I had met some familiar people grappling with universal problems. And that Hall had given me the gift of spending an evening with them.
—Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.