Smashing Those Precious Moments

06/04/2010 6:00 PM |

Jack's Precious Moments
Written by Samuel D. Hunter
Directed by Kip Fagan

Loaded with biblical themes, allusions and plots, Jack's Precious Moments portrays the acute religious crisis of a very Christian Idaho family. There's a hint of Cain and Abel from the opening moments when Bib (Eddie Kaye Thomas), at a pulpit addressing a gathering of mourners, describes a recently released internet video that shows his brother Jack being decapitated by insurgents in Iraq. Bib and Jack were twins, and though the latter never appears (except maybe as a giant bobble-headed angel mascot, of which more shortly), one gets the sense that they could not have been more different. Bib, a subdued, soft-spoken nurse, is particularly quiet because shell-shocked and unraveling under the heavy cloak of grief that he wears constantly like the ridiculous sweater knit by his late mother that he refuses to remove throughout the mid-summer play. Jack, a contractor who went to Iraq to build cell phone relay towers, was by all accounts a terrible person (in fact, this much is repeated more often than necessary), and his memory evades the heroic romanticizing his father continually attempts. Though he's dead, Jack would be Cain in this biblical revision, and Bib the weaker, more sensitive Abel.

As his description of the video concludes, Bib explains how he found himself identifying with his brother's killers and their plan to do god's will by killing bad people (because, again, Jack was a bad dude). This doesn't sit so well with their father Jim (Tom Bloom), though Jack's widow Karen (Karen Walsch) seems unaffected as she's entirely retrenched into her high-pitched, anger-repressing, Precious Moments-hoarding corner of the world. Precious Moments, for the unfamiliar, are a collection of small porcelain angel figurines created by Samuel J. Butcher that portray good, dead Christians as winged children. There are over 1,500 Precious Moments, and a chapel in Carthage, Missouri, where one can buy more and see them portrayed in stained glass and church murals, and this is where Karen decides she must go to put the death of her (awful) husband behind her—by pleading with Butcher to create a Precious Moment for Jack.

Like most plans in this heartfelt and depressing new play, having its premiere with Brooklyn's Page 73 Productions, Karen's pitch doesn't pan out. Samuel D. Hunter (who has an even more dire-sounding show, Five Genocides, premiering at the Ohio later this month) pushes his characters to the brink and when they most need some kind of reassuring catharsis, he pushes them a little further into despair. The three leads all respond with varied and well-textured versions of abandon. Bloom resorts somewhat too predictably to shouting, though his shame at these outbursts comes off as the genuine surprise of a man who was rather looking forward to not needing such raw emotion so late in life. Meanwhile, Bib regresses into increasingly untenable somnambulant behavior that must, like a long-dormant volcano, eventually erupt with terrifying force.

Most impressive among the leads, though, is Walsch, whose Karen initially seems too facile a caricature of the Midwestern housewife, the born-again Christian and former addict occasionally slipping out of her at first annoyingly cutesy tone and back into her curse-ladden speech patterns. Chuck (Lucas Papaelias), who operates a carnival ride called the Octopus just outside the grounds of the Precious Moments chapel, comes along quite late but completely steals the show. Papaelias's hilarious, rambling, philosophizing, hedonistic carnival ride operator falls hard for Bib, and offers the absolute opposite from the (fractured) nuclear family lifestyle. His attraction to Bib is tinged with paternalism and a protective urge, but stands as the opposite extreme from Jim, who preaches (but doesn't always practice) stone-faced suffering.

Hunter drives at some malleable middle-ground between these doctrines of pleasure-driven nomadism and living for the afterlife, though his characters neither adhere wholly to one or the other, nor manage that equilibrium. Set designer Lee Savage and lighting designer Matt Frey accentuate this uneasy balance, crafting a modular, striped set of tacky wood-panelling and popping blue skies, each lit differently to evoke interior and exterior scenes. The studio at 59E59 proves a little tight for director Kip Fagan's magical realism, though, especially whenever his life-sized Precious Moment Angel (Danny Ryan) has to squeeze in the door, making for funny but too hard-won moments between bereaved family members and this floating, unflinching vision of cartoonish Christian caring. The rigid effect is reused too frequently, and tips the precious ideological balance towards the infinitely more agile Chuck, a blithe, libidinous and base id to the awkward and crackling family superego. Still, it's to Hunter and his great cast's credit that they're able to put all these questions into play, probing the very roots of American identity by way of its latest national crisis, engaging a foreign war from the home front, and questioning the value and role of religious belief in the most fundamental and relatable ways. Staged in a more amenable venue, Jack's Precious Moments could be stronger still.

(photo credit: Evan Sung)