Owen Meany converts Denver
Michael Wartella stars as Owen.
I have read John Irvings novel A Prayer for Owen Meany four times. Among late 1980s novels this one soured me on other fiction because it was singular in its nimble dealings of the relationship of the picaresque to fate. Hence, when I was in Denver in February and saw that the Denver Theater Center was set to produce A Prayer for Owen Meany come April, I thought well why not? When I actually committed to going I fretted a little bit (well, a lot) over would the play ruin the book for me? Could any actor really do justice to Owen, a character whose smallness, voice and intellect produced a clairvoyant with a taste for Liberace, and no truck with authority? On the drive up I-25 toward Denver, tire blowout and all, my husband asked, “how are they going to produce a book that has so much description? And frankly, this was a problem.
John Irving speaks on another novel with a shared theme of the absent father.
As Owen, recent Circle in the Square Theater School graduate Michael Wartella is both comic and resolute, and does a bangup job. And Cheryl Lynn Bowers is terrific as Barb Wiggins. And it bears mention that having spent the shows opening night at Discount Tire in Pueblo, I had ample time to fix on the part the book played in my life, two decades ago, and what is was going to be like to see it now that Reagan-era policies and Vietnam are that much farther in the past. The most entrenched flaw with the play is that the strength of narrator John Wheelwright, who states from the outset his dilemma as being “doomed to remember, gets lost as a figure trapped solely in the present time. How could a theatrical production have allowed Johnny Wheelwright (David Ivers) his present self, interchanging with his past self onstage, throughout the three hours of this production? Further, exiling the character of Hester from the play was a bad idea. The plays adaptor, Simon Bent, committed this novel into a play for the National Theatre of Great Britain in 2002, spawning some pretty awful school theater productions judging by YouTube. But one cant fault Bents gift for condensation. Still he appears to have decided to make this play into one mainly of boys, with a boylike worship for Johnnys mother Tabitha (whom, I promise you, never ever invited Owen to “call (her) Tabitha.”)
Now, to quote my favorite politician, President Obama, lets be clear. There was nothing textbook or orthodox about Owens faith. And so in the play Owens injunctions to “faith and prayer,” a phrase I can tell you he was never once heard to utter in the novel, really got on my nerves. However, the Christmas play scene in which Owen instructs his elders on the subleties of casting was pure genius. The set worked beautifully to communicate the rigidity of the granite quarry and the walls of orthodoxy amid a boys strivings to understand his place in the most giant drama of all.
In sum the play was a mix of many powerful elements, a strong quotient of surprise for the crowd (who appeared truly moved), and ongoing reminders of Denvers superb theater company, which steps right up to theatrical challenges and is rightly recognized for it. It bears special note that very few Owen Meany plays have been produced professionally. Its hard to turn an 800-page book ripe with description into a theatrical event. And for a viewer like me, who knows the thing by heart, failing to use that first image of cellar stairs, in the opening scene of the play, manifested a missed opportunity to deal in how one decides, indeed experiences, the intensity of conversion in a way this production did not quite touch.