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Friday, June 14, 2024

Theatre review: A Prayer for Owen Meany rises again in a testament to ensemble theatre

Stage adaptation of John Irving’s novel benefits from a terrific cast

Director Ian Farthing and Ensemble Theatre Company offer their testament to ensemble work in the second incarnation of A Prayer for Owen Meany, two years after the production took its first breath.

Many of the performers in the current production at Pacific Theatre were in the original cast and everyone works together with precision, trust and finely honed acting skills.  An outstanding case in point is the multi-levelled performance of Chris Lam as Owen Meany, a tiny person with a huge intellect, who believes his life’s mission is God-driven.

This is not to suggest that Simon Bent’s adaptation of John Irving’s 1989 novel preaches, although several sermons are delivered, some tongue-in-cheek.  There is also liberal use of foul language and sexual innuendo but authenticity and good taste, under Farthing’s direction, ensure that the play never oversteps the mark.

However, Bent’s structure of the play might have been enhanced had he transposed the baseball game, and its pivotal outcome, from the opening of the second act to the close of the first one, thus creating a powerful cliff-hanger.

As it stood, the first act focused on establishing characters and relationships and lacked any real plot line. Unfortunately, that prompted compensatory broad brush strokes in some of the acting, and by intermission someone unfamiliar with the story asked what Owen Meany’s mission was, and why.  It wasn’t until act two that her questions were answered.

It’s ironic that in such an unequivocally ensemble cast, so many performances, in addition to Lam’s, stood out.

Relative newcomer Riley Davis gave a chilling interpretation of the dysfunctional brother of a soldier killed in Vietnam, and Tanja Dixon-Warren’s portrayal of John Wheelwright’s bombastic grandmother was beautifully observed and executed. Her thundering, straight-down-the-line common sense, tinged with a twinkle of wicked humour, added light hearted pace to the proceedings.  So did Gabriel Carter’s and Kim Steger’s brilliant double act as Mr. and Mrs. Meany, constantly doused in quarry dust.

Alexis Kellum-Creer also deserves mention.  She not only gave a convincing performance as Tabitha, John Wheelwright’s single mother, but she also sang like a true Angel of the Night.  Small wonder Owen Meany had a crush on her.

Not to denigrate Tariq Leslie’s excellent performance as John Wheelwright, but he seemed a little too old in contrast to Lam’s Owen Meany.  Perhaps, he could slough off his aging cardigan when he moves from narrator to Meany’s best friend of school days and young adulthood.  Better still, he could lose the cardigan altogether.  A change of deportment would work just as well.  He is, after all, a well-seasoned actor who would have no trouble moving in and out of time periods and age groups.

A minor point, hopefully due to first night hiccups, was the absence of the sound of impact when a mimed baseball connected with Owen Meany’s bat, and when it landed.  It decreased the intensity of an otherwise heart-stopping moment.

Despite a few niggles, the production came together like malleable clay, elegantly shaped by a sensitive potter, and the audience was well satisfied.

A Prayer for Owen Meany by Simon Bent. Adapted from the novel by John Irving. Directed by Ian Farthing. An Ensemble Theatre Company production presented by Pacific Theatre. On stage at Pacific Theatre (1440 W 12th Ave, Vancouver) until February 9. Visit for tickets and information.

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