Samuel D. Hunter is no stranger to writing about people with physical disabilities—or people living in Idaho, where he’s from. His play The Whale (2012), which concerned a morbidly obese man mostly confined to his sofa, won him a special Drama Desk Award. So it makes sense that he’d receive a commission to write a play for Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), a company that employs actors with disabilities. The result is The Healing, a strange play that fuses religion and faith with the struggle of people who have physical disabilities.
The set-up is very like The Big Chill. Zoe, a member of a close-knit group of people, has committed suicide and just been buried near Idaho Falls. Her friends have gathered at her home, filled by set designer Jason Simms with kitschy Disney figurines, frog cookie jars, pictures with twig frames, and a big brown sofa with a crocheted throw.
The group has been out of touch for a while. Foremost among them is Sharon (Shannon DeVido), a wheelchair-bound woman with a decent income—she has paid for the funeral—and some festering resentments. Also in attendance are Donald, a gay friend in financial straits; Laura (Mary Theresa Archbold), who always seems withdrawn and a bit befuddled, as if she’s just woken from a nap (at her entrance she has); and a visiting couple, Bonnie, also in a wheelchair, and her boyfriend Greg, who is deaf.
All except Greg knew Zoe from their days at a summer camp run by Christian Scientists. Their camp counselor at the time was a woman named Joan (Lynne Lipton), who urged them to pray to God to heal their broken bodies. The young firebrand Sharon led a revolt, exposing Joan’s preaching and getting the camp shut down.
Hunter is good at revealing the emotional damage that the characters have endured from the experience, but from the outset the direction and some of the casting prove hurdles to credibility. Under director Stella Powell-Jones, the first scene unfolds languorously, with Donald and Sharon eating ice cream and watching the shopping channel, a favorite of Zoe’s and apparently the only thing they can watch since the remote control is missing. (It’s an annoying plot hole that later Sharon tells Laura that she can change the channel on the TV itself.)
In any case, DeVido’s projection is initially weak and her presence so underpowered that she never really gains credibility as a former rabble-rouser—she can’t even be bothered to change the channel on the TV, after all. And she has her own self-righteous streak. When she learns her friends have found solace in various churches, she responds: “I thought you were all more intelligent than this.”
By contrast, Jamie Petrone’s Bonnie is energetic, efficient and altogether livelier. It’s no surprise that the square-jawed Greg is attracted to her. As the hearing-impaired hunk, John McGinty signs much of his dialogue, but at key times Hunter calls for an unexpected spoken word, and McGinty barks those out with comic relish.
David Harrell has a thankless role as Donald, a token gay character with a malformed arm who is looking for love. (Hunter’s cast list mostly specifies only that actors have disabilities without being particular.) Harrell, though, has a nice, understated presence, and projects decency and loyalty. Laura (Mary Theresa Archbold), meanwhile, has a history as an orphan, and she seems to bond briefly with Greg, who brings out the best in others.
There are secrets to be revealed, both about Zoe’s suicide and a “healing” that Sharon took part in with her that may have given Zoe the wrong impression. Although the characters are interesting, the direction at times fails them. Several silences that should crackle with tension instead stagnate like dead air.
Hunter, who is gay, clearly means to draw a parallel to the philosophy of many churches that homosexuality can be cured through prayer, and the comparison stands up. The play ends strongly, as the hated Joan enters, now a tentative but well-meaning woman far more sympathetic than Sharon. Lynne Lipton’s Joan has long since come to terms with the damage she did so blindly in the name of religion, and Powell’s direction supports the scene, as gradually Joan and Sharon slowly approach each other, and DeVido delivers a last speech that is quite moving.
Samuel D. Hunter’s The Healing runs through July 16 at the Clurman Theater on Theater Row (410 W. 42nd St. between Ninth and Dyer avenues). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday and 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit theaterrow.org.