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PlayMakers Repertory Company Review: John Irving's Pint-Sized Hero Comes to Life in A Prayer for Owen Meany

October 26, 2003 - Chapel Hill, NC:


"I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice not because of his voice or the because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany...."

So says the grown-up Johnny Wheelwright, the narrator of both American novelist John Irving's strange and wonderful 1989 anti-war novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and British playwright Simon Bent's strange and wonderful 2002 anti-war stage adaptation now enjoying its American premiere in a stellar PlayMakers Repertory Company production that runs through Nov. 9th in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Diminutive PRC guest artist Jeff Gurner, wearing a boyish wig and speaking in an eerie falsetto, is simply splendid as Owen Meany, a great soul imprisoned in a tiny body. Despite the fact that he never grows up he will always have the body of an 11-year-old boy Owen devoutly believes that God has a purpose for his life and that he is an instrument of God's will.

Guest artists Matthew Floyd Miller and Vicki Van Tassel are likewise excellent as Owen's childhood playmate Johnny Wheelwright and his ultra-sexy but doomed single mother, Tabitha, whom Owen accidentally kills by hitting a miraculous line drive that hits Mrs. Wheelwright in the head during a fateful Little League game.

PRC company member Ray Dooley and PlayMakers associate artist Tandy Cronyn are terrific as Owen's hilariously ill-matched Catholic parents, a taciturn granite cutter and a domestic drudge who constantly clash; and Dooley and Cronyn double delightfully as stuffy old Dr. Dolder and Mitzi Lish. Company members Jeffrey Blair Cornell and Kenneth P. Strong provide comic relief as the Reverend Merrill and Rector Wiggins, two clergymen perplexed by the strange and miraculous events that the presence of Owen Mean seems to provoke; and Strong adds an incisive portrait of Major Rawls.

PlayMakers associate artist Joan Darling is a delight as crusty Grandma Wheelwright, Owen's steadfast friend no matter what; and PRC company member Julie Fishell steals every scene she is in as poor carping legless Lydia the Wheelwright family cook. (Fishell also plays a Nun later in the show.)

Set and costume designer Bill Clarke creates a brilliant surrealistic multilevel "mindscape" in which the play's strange and wonderful developments take place, lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger artfully illuminates the action, and sound designer M. Anthony Reimer neatly underscores the play's developments with just the right snippet of music or ambient sound.

PlayMakers Repertory Company artistic director David Hammond once again demonstrates his mastery of a complicated multilevel script, and he really pushes the creative envelope with his savvy staging of A Prayer for Owen Meany. Surely, the crowd-pleasing PRC American premiere of Simon Bent's imaginative stage adaptation of John Irving's novel will inspire other productions across the country.

Second opinion: Susan Broili's Oct. 23rd Durham, NC Herald-Sun profile of Jeff Gurner: http://www.herald-sun.com/features/54-405809.html [inactive 1/04]. Alan R. Hall's Oct. 22nd Chapel Hill, NC Front Row Center review: http://hometown.aol.com/theonlyarhall/reviews.html. Orla Swift's Oct. 21st News & Observer review: http://www.newsobserver.com/theaterreview/story/2962613p-2716424c.html [inactive 5/04].

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents A Prayer for Owen Meany Sunday, Oct. 26, at 2 p.m.; Tuesday-Saturday, Oct. 28-Nov. 1 and Nov. 4-8, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Nov. 2 and 9, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $20-$32, except $10 Tuesday Community Night. (Note: PRC offers discounts for seniors, students, and youth.) 919/962-PLAY (7529) or prcboxoffice@unc.edu. PlayMakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org/pdffiles/Owen_pr.pdf. National Theatre: http://www.nt-online.org/?lid=1189 [inactive 12/03] . NT Education Workpack: http://website-archive.nt-online.org/education/workpacks/owen_meany_workpack.pdf [inactive 12/03].