Photographs figure prominently in An Almost Holy Picture, which is currently on view at Mustard Seed Theatre. Heather McDonald's play is a monologue about one man's journey to — and away from — God. McDonald is adept at showing us a veritable photo album of snapshots in the guise of anecdotes and stories from the life of Samuel Gentle, a former pastor-turned-gardener whose faith has been challenged beyond understanding (which of course is a fundamental tenet of faith). Samuel's life has been scarred by callous cruelty and defined by ineffable sorrow.
It might be argued that cruelty and sorrow are not what most people look for when they go to the theater. (Isn't there a good Neil Simon on the boards somewhere?) But thanks to Gary Wayne Barker's pristine portrayal of Samuel, An Almost Holy Picture offers a rare communion between actor and audience that is nothing less than purifying. There is no "fourth wall" here; Samuel stands before us exposed. Even as he bares his own soul, he is looking at us and through us. A once-obedient steward who has lost the ability to hear the voice of God, Samuel desires that we understand what he cannot. We might hope that Michael Sullivan's lighting design has left us protected in the darkness, but hope is in short supply at An Almost Holy Picture. And so we must respond; at the very least, attention must be paid. Both actor and character demand it.
Director Bruce Longworth has supported his solitary actor with a set by Dunsi Dai that establishes the play's varying exterior locales (Cape Cod and the American southwest) as well as its inner universe, which is Samuel's tortured mind. The sound design by Rusty Wandall also serves to assist the viewer in visualizing those snapshots from the past.
But this is Barker's night. Although the surname Gentle seems a little on the nose, that's exactly what Barker is. He almost always brings a gentle civility and an uncommon intelligence to his acting, but never more so than here.
"I'm intrigued by transformations," Samuel tells us (as he recounts his wife, Miriam, playing Amanda Wingfield in a summer stock production of The Glass Menagerie). But the evening's most complete transformation is Barker, who immerses himself in the character to the point where he is clearly and comfortably in the actor's groove and can do no wrong. He uses every resource at an actor's disposal, paints with every color of the spectrum, to create this ambivalent man whose personal idea of God is forever fluid. Name an emotion — anger, fear, rage, love, confusion — and by the time the play has ended Barker will have tapped into it.
Although Barker rarely stops speaking for nearly two hours (intermission excepted), he never once delivers a speech. One of his most appealing qualities is spontaneity. He is constantly reaching for sudden new thoughts that encourage us to stay with him.
Sadly, by evening's end the playwright's emphasis shifts. No longer is she content to conjure snapshots from the past. Instead the story line becomes entangled in a verbal bog from which it never extricates itself. Samuel devolves from storyteller into a suffering, Job-like character who rails against the infinite. It makes for a murky ending to what heretofore had been an involving story.
Yet Barker still has one final revelation: When the piece is over, after the countless words are all behind him, Barker's modest curtain call is a humbling exercise in humility. He seems almost embarrassed to have to acknowledge the applause. Is this Samuel, or is it Gary Wayne Barker? Or is it a blending of both? To the very end, An Almost Holy Picture exemplifies the concept of the actor as supplicant, forever in service to both the role and the text.