The Clurman Theatre
410 W. 42nd Street
The problems faced by the characters in Samuel D. Hunter’s The Healing are so enormous and so complex that they make the problems faced by characters in other new plays being done right now seem puny and trivial by comparison. Hunter works in a vein of deeply empathetic, un-rushed, un-forced naturalism. He isn’t afraid to begin his play with a seemingly inactive exchange between two people, Sharon (Shannon DeVido) and Donald (David Harrell), who are seen staring blankly at a small television set when the lights come up. Sharon and Donald are nearly entirely numb when we first see them. They have been to a funeral of an old friend from childhood, and they have come to clear out the friend’s apartment, which is filled with knick-knacks and figurines.
The Healing was produced with Theater Breaking Through Barriers, and some of the cast members are actors with disabilities. DeVido, who has worked as a stand-up comic, is in a wheelchair, as is Jamie Petrone, who plays Bonnie, another old friend. Sharon, Donald, Bonnie, and Laura (Mary Theresa Archbold) met at a religious camp when they were kids. The camp leader, a woman named Joan, was a Christian Scientist who told the disabled kids that if they prayed hard enough they could overcome their disabilities.
As teenagers the friends all banded together to get the camp shut down, but their friend Zoe (Pamela Sabaugh) was never able to let go of the Christian Science teachings she had learned from Joan, and it is Zoe who they have come to bury. We see some scenes between Zoe and Sharon where Zoe’s despair and need for her religious faith are made very apparent. And we find out that Zoe was found frozen to death just a few feet from her house, a suicide.
What happens in most of Hunter’s plays comes very close to what the situations he has selected would be like in life, but these situations are shaped by his steady, nearly invisible control over his material. There is no strain in his work. If a character in one of Hunter’s plays has a monologue that turns lyrical, it is delivered quietly and haltingly, with no sense of trying to impress us with Deep Thoughts, but actual deep thoughts about life do start to arise by themselves, almost without Hunter’s assistance.
The gathering power of this play about good intentions and trying to be a good person reaches a climax when Joan stops by the apartment to see her old “kids.” As played by Lynne Lipton, Joan is not what we might have expected given the way the others have spoken about her. A frail, tremulous older woman, Lipton’s Joan is a person who seems to live in a painful state of permanent mortification. She cannot bring herself to ask for forgiveness or even to fully express her feelings, and so she mainly stands in place in a state of static agony.
Lipton plays her difficult but rewarding part very disturbingly because she never settles down definitively on any emotion. What’s really horrible about this situation is that Joan knows that she did something unforgivably wrong yet there is still a fuzzy, evasive part of her that wants to believe that what she did was really all right, that her intentions, at least, had been pure. Joan is a woman searching desperately for an escape hatch, and Hunter relates her very specific dilemma to a universal human need for escape and relief.
Hunter has brought his drama out to such a stark and distant plane of understanding that finally there is no further it can go. In The Healing he is dramatizing the idea that people can kill each other when they think they are being most helpful, and he allows patterns to emerge naturally on themes like security, friendship, and terminal unhappiness. The Healing is a rich, troubling, and tragic play, beautifully played by all of the actors, and enthralling in its intimacy and also in its deep insight into human frailty.