The Devil is in the details

Screaming in the Wilderness

By Vanda
Directed by Steven McElroy
Emerging Artists Theatre Company
Mint Space
311 West 43rd Street, 5th fl. (212/279-4200)
Equity showcase (closes June 1)
Review by Arlene McKanic

Vanda’s Screaming in the Wilderness dares to tackle a lot of big questions: God, love, sex, the media, and the meaning, or lack of meaning, of life in general. The protagonist is Nadine (Cynthia Brown), an aggressive TV reporter with a hole in her soul. When she gets wind that a priest, Father James (Gerald Downey), is performing miracles and claiming to be the Savior, she goes after him like a pit bull, partly out of ambition for her own career and partly out of a desperate search to regain the sense of meaning and oneness with God she used to have before she left Father James’s church. When she catches the priest in an unconsummated embrace with a blind parishioner, it leads not so much to his destruction but to her finally hitting rock bottom and having to claw her way back up to the light.

Brown’s portrayal of the Godforsaken (so she thinks) and devil-ridden Nadine was absorbing, and exhausting; she seemed like a woman being torn to pieces in a whirlwind. Barbara J. Spence was effective as both her saintly quasi-stepfather (he never married her mother) and the ghost of Nadine’s preoccupied, New Agey mother. Most of the actors, save Brown, played multiple characters, even of the opposite sex. So Danielle Quisenberry played Father James’s conflicted sister Jane, a secretary at the church, as well as the doddering and corrupt Archduke Fuller, the church’s temporal head. Tom Dusenbury’s biggest role was as the Sub Regent Dillaway, who longs to take over as Archduke and sees the young priest’s notoriety as only being good for drawing people (and their money) into the church. He also played the mother of a girl who’s allegedly healed by Father James. Downey was wonderful as the priest. Even after the scandal Father James is untouchable in his innocence -- he’s the sort of man who can still see the miracles in sunrises and sunsets. He was also handsome, and spent an inordinate amount of time deliciously bare-chested. Aimee Howard was also brilliant as the blind parishioner; James and Jane’s mother, who is as crazy in her own beliefs as Nadine’s mother is in hers; and Ricky Day, a PR man who comes to save the church’s bacon. Marianne Mackenzie, Mark Mears, Billy Rosa, and Vanessa Villalobos were sensuously frightful as the demons who haunt Nadine’s dreams.

Vanda tackles so many big themes that she’s bound to stumble from time to time; the play’s humor is often small and sour, and the action, especially near the end, can be over-the-top, a situation that was only partially remedied by the valiant efforts of director Steven McElroy. Vanda’s church, though, is a discomfiting mix of Catholicism and wicca, with a hint of Aleister Crowley. The Mass is said in Spanish and the refrain is "Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps," as opposed to "Amen." The effect was appropriately creepy, and costume designer Trevor McGinness’s dark, cowled robes added to the clergy’s sinister aura. Carter Inskeep’s set design was an arcade made out of what looked like whale or mammoth rib bones, maybe a nod to the church’s quasi-pagan workings. Between acts an organ played the same lugubrious tune over and over and over. It was maddening, and during intermission most of the audience cleared out, probably because of that music. But Carlos Boll’s overall sound design -- electronica, that awful organ, sepulchral voices intertwining -- was supposed to be unnerving. Jason Marin’s lighting design was also complex, from the seasick green that lit up Nadine’s harrowing nightmares, to the soft gold of Father James’s sunrises and sunsets, to the flat lighting of some of the church scenes.

Screaming in the Wilderness is a big, messy, ambitious, and important work.

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Sets: 2
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 2003 Arlene McKanic