Eye of God
nytheatre.com review by Josh Sherman
October 5, 2009
"What are the limits of faith?" is the central question posed by playwright Tim Blake Nelson (and on the program cover) in the New York premiere of his 1994 work Eye of God, and it is certainly one worth examining in this thoughtful, upsetting production from new production company TheatreEast. The company, comprised of alumni actors and directors from Alchemy Theater of Manhattan and the dirigo group, has seemingly deliberately chosen a flawed script for their debut production, and it serves well to define them as a company that is unafraid of a risky script with more questions than answers for its audience—an always welcome addition to the indie theater community. While Eye of God is the victim of some stodgy pacing in parts, ultimately the piece is worth seeing for the content and a few standout performances.
Running at about two hours with a short ten-minute intermission, Eye of God is, on paper, a flummoxing, paradoxical drama that splices together small town values, redemption, religious overtones, and horrific violence in what should be a simmering cauldron. Director Lisa Devine has her hands full with the script, and it's clear that she struggles to balance a wildly uneven tone in the script itself. But to her credit, the show is well-cast and manages to keep the audience's attention throughout the shifts in this "problem play," and never lets things stray too far.
Eye of God takes place in the tiny town of Kingfisher, Oklahoma in 1983, and the ensemble that Devine has assembled makes you feel like you're on the bluesy Oklahoma plains right off the bat. As told through the eyes of our narrator Sheriff Rogers (Richard Mawe), the plot revolves around a recent ex-con, Jack (a riveting Judson Jones), and his pen pal lover Ainsley (an equally excellent Valerie Redd). Nelson never lets us in on what Jack did, but Jones's portrayal of the role lets us know he found God in order to rehabilitate himself from his heinous crime. Jack regularly checks in with his parole officer, Sprague (a great Benard Cummings), as he waits to build a new life with his bride-to-be Ainsley. But, as time goes by, the relationship between Jack and Ainsley deteriorates precipitously as Jack's reliance on his faith in a higher power proves antithetical to Ainsley's life.
Nelson has chosen to populate Kingfisher with a cast of characters who intertwine with each another on an eerily regular basis. In a very stylized, Twin Peaks-meets-Rimers of Eldritch sort of way, we meet characters such as teenager Tom (Ehad Berisha), his gum-cracking waitress aunt Dorothy (Shorey Walker, another standout), and various others who contribute to the ultimate fates of Jack and Ainsley. The twists and turns that Eye of God takes veer too much for me to reveal anything more without spoiling things. What I can reveal is that TheatreEast and Devine have taken great pains to illuminate Nelson's stark vision and to let the audience decide for themselves if the characters take their faiths too far.
Eye of God is not a perfect play by any stretch—there are too many characters and too many loose ends that Nelson leaves hanging for it to be some kind of masterpiece. But what it does achieve is to transport the audience to a specific place and time to tell a curious story in its own folksy, macabre way. TheatreEast gets plenty of "guts" points for picking this challenge as its inaugural production—here's looking forward to their next outing.