Thursday, April 30, 2009

Heaven’s My Destination, Cleveland Play House

(MIchael Halling as George Brush)

We always tend to cheer for an innocent, out alone in the big, bad world, trying to fend for himself while imbuing others with his uncomplicated moral vision. But those cheers can die off quickly when our hero turns out to have less of Gandhi’s inspired selflessness and more of the self-righteous priggishness of Frank Burns from MASH.

This is the challenge posed by Heaven’s My Destination, a world premiere being presented now at the Cleveland Play House as part of their annual FusionFest celebration. This Lee Blessing adaptation of the Thornton Wilder novel of the same name was commissioned by the Play House, and it’s a mixed bag of amusing moments along with redundancy and some tedium.

To Blessing and director Michael Bloom’s credit, Destination conjures up a charming tone that keeps one smiling through the bulk of the play. But those smiles rarely burst into knowing hilarity or elide into rueful insight, since the main character of George Brush is written in stone, aside from a book-ended crisis of faith.

Set in 1931, George is a successful traveling school text salesman who has strict Christian thoughts on what is right and wrong, and he doesn’t hesitate in sharing his rules with strangers at the slightest provocation. Like a fundamentalist missionary hacking his way through a jungle of heathens, he attempts to “correct” every person he meets.

Depending on your perspective, you might consider such a person a devout and unshakable purveyor of goodness or a searing pain in the rectum. In either case, to work theatrically the character of George must be sufficiently accessible, and that is where this production finds itself at a bit of a loss.

Perhaps it’s because of our awareness of the damage religious zealots with firmly closed minds can do—from Osama bin Laden to James Dobson—that the premise of a free-range moralist is less than cuddly. Brush’s views range from the unassailable (against Jim Crow laws) to the quaint (he won’t accept interest on his bank account) to the ignorant (vehemently against the theory of evolution). And add to that he’s essentially a humorless prude.

This is a vexing fellow to build a play around, but Blessing manages to make Brush a feckless innocent who seems always on the brink of making a breakthrough of some sort. Trouble is, he never does, and there are so many brief scenes with so many different characters—a common problem when trying to condense a novel into a play—that one eventually tires from the oft-repetitive 2½-hour effort.

In the lead, Michael Halling does yeoman work since he’s in virtually every scene and has to contend with a role that has little if any conventional human dimension. It’s hard to play a symbol, especially a simplistic one, and Halling emerges relatively unscathed from the process. A cast of seven other actors portray the galaxy of people who meet George on his travels, some of whom beat him, berate him, or otherwise do anything they can to get out of his way.

A small romance with a woman named Roberta flares up momentarily, but like all of Brush’s other interactions it doesn’t conclude too happily (he condemns her for her smoking, among other things). And finally, confronting profound doubts about his faith, George experiences an epiphany in time for the final curtain.

The Play House production does a nice job of creating a period tone, sort of like O Brother, Where Art Thou complete with some musical interludes (Halling has a kick-ass tenor voice). But the play itself would benefit from a more targeted focus on fewer characters, so that we could get closer to the kind of monomaniacal innocence, and perhaps the vulnerability, that George Brush represents.

Heaven’s My Destination
Through May 17 at the Cleveland Play House,
8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000

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