Jeff Smith noon, March 8
Damien at Lamb's Players
Hear the word "saint" and you might imagine a cherubic face and gentle spirit floating three feet above ground and beautific as all get out. But look at a photo of Mother Teresa - at that face! Read G.K. Chesterton's vivid account of St. Francis of Assisi, or watch Robert Smyth's portrayal of Father Damien de Veuster and your notion of sainthood may need revising.
If you saw Father Damien holding a cardboard, "please help" sign on a street corner today, you might walk swiftly past. Photos show a blob of grunge, snaggly beard, and stark, undeviating eyes. They said he was cantankerous and combative and never suffered fools, especially those in high places.
In one sense you would have been wise to avoid him. His frayed and smelly cassock carried leprosy.
Ordained a priest in 1864 - much to the surprise of many - he was a missionary at the Hawaiian Islands. On May 10, 1873, his dream came true: he became resident priest of Molokai, called the "gray island" because it was a colony for 600 lepers.
At his first sight of 'so much concentrated misery," he felt a sadness that dumbfounded him. He needed three days before he could look at his flock "without revulsion" and "weeks before I could endure the graveyard smell."
A visitor said "it would seem that even demons would pity their condition and hasten their death." Father Damien learned that no, most lepers lived long, incessantly horrific lives - and vowed to ameliorate their anguish as best he could.
He stayed 16 years.
One of the most moving scenes in Robert Smyth's portrayal: the moment Damien realizes he is no longer an outsider in the colony: he too is a leper.
Aldyth Morris's play begins after Damien died. His ghost follows the exhumation of his body (leprosy-free), 50 years after its burial, and its journey to Belgium and canonization.
I've seen several renditions of Damien and have watched Robert Smyth's growth as a storyteller. In this version he's mastered the ability to use gestures and paint pictures without anything stagey. His focus is constant, his vocal variety admirable. And he weaves an intricate text, which leaps about, into a compelling tale.
The portrait would be complete if, on those occasions when an idea suddenly dawns on Damien (as in the conclusion), that Smyth would pause - even half or a third of a beat - and let us see it bloom.
Michael McKeon's set turns the Lamb's stage into a rocky island with at least five playing spaces, these demarcated by Pierson's always useful lighting.
Costume wiz Jeanne Barnes Reith has only one outfit for the show - and makes sure that Father Damien's cassock is every bit as off-putting as the original.
Lamb's Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Avenue, Coronado, playing through May 5.
More like this:
- Wit at Lamb's Players Theatre — Oct. 23, 2013
- Robert Smyth: Lamb's 12 most important shows (five through eight) — Nov. 9, 2012
- Lamb’s Players Theatre's The Book of the Dun Cow — April 20, 2011
- Us and Them — Feb. 24, 2010
- Morality Mania — Oct. 25, 2007