Samuel D. Hunter returns to his favorite state onstage, Idaho, with a new play about an unhappy reunion of summer camp pals, The Healing. Rather than bearing a nostalgic-ache for summers in the country, these friends are connected by agonizing memories of the camp they eventually got shut down. As the only children with disabilities at a camp run by a Christian Scientist, Joan, they bore the cruel brunt of her faith. She preached that if only they prayed they could be “healed.” Now in their thirties, they have gathered together to mourn the unexpected death of one camp friend, Zoe (Pamela Sabaugh).
The damage Joan wrought continued in small part because Zoe became a practicing Christian Scientist. This pained Zoe’s closest friend, Sharon (Shannon DeVido), who tried for years to get Zoe to reconsider her faith (particularly when it impacted on Zoe’s health). Sharon has taken on the role of making the funeral arrangements and preparing to pack up Zoe’s things, while Donald (David Harrell) tries to be the peacemaker between the friends. Laura (Mary Theresa Archbold), caustic and glum, avoids the crowd. Bubbly Bonnie (Jamie Petrone) shows up late and with a new boyfriend, the doting Greg (John McGinty).
Like many friendships from childhood, when you consider them in adulthood, you wonder if you would actually become friends with this person now. Being back near the remnants of the camp, coping with Zoe’s untimely death, and dealing with the presence of Joan at the funeral, exacerbates the tensions that already exist between the friends. They cannot help but press each other’s buttons. Bonnie’s up-tempo cheer never mixes well with Sharon’s flaying sarcasm or Laura’s bluntness. Donald is forever on the sidelines managing the emotions.
Hunter deftly peels back the layers of sorrow in these characters. At only 90 minutes, he creates complete characters the audience easily connect to, even if a few moments in the play come across as overly-constructed. Covering momentous subject matters like faith, friendship, loneliness, and legacy, Hunter can only dabble a little in each, with faith looming largest. But Hunter’s dabbling is better than most playwrights’ deepest dives. Even a wonky bit of the plot can be smoothed over by his skillful character work.
As the friends debate the conflicting issues of peace and pain that can arise with faith, it is the finely wrought details of the characters that enrich the play. Zoe’s need to accumulate things to stave off her loneliness manifests itself in a collection of endless tschotskes purchased from a TV shopping channel. Sharon’s refusal to lean on her friends and instead fly in an aide from out-of-state to help her, demonstrates the lengths she will go for her independence, even if it means creating distance with the people who care about her.
Hunter’s skill at building emotional resonance from delicate and simple scenes is a joy. In one monologue, Laura talks about returning to Latvia where she was born and stumbling across a place she remembered from when she was a child. Laura’s meditation on the past is an awkward unburdening to Greg, a total stranger to her. Director, Stella Powell-Jones keenly stages the scene so that Laura speaks with her face turned away from Greg. Greg is deaf and from that position he cannot read her lips. The longer she talks, the more we sit with the discomfort of her thoughtlessness towards Greg. Yet we understand her character better from it.
The Healing was a commission for Theater Breaking Through Barriers. The play is written for performers with disabilities to play characters with disabilities (specifying only that Sharon be played by an actress in a wheelchair and Greg be played by an actor who is deaf). The Healing gives us the opportunity to see talented actors who we might not typically get to see on stage. Thankfully the play does not limit their presence to symbols or devices. Though Hunter’s play starts with disability as central to the abuse the children experienced, they are characters with complex lives. Disability is not necessarily the crux of that complexity.
Shannon DeVido (who was a hilarious, wise-cracking teen in Mike Lew’s play-in-development, Teenage Dick) brings a beautiful agony to Sharon who has held onto her anger with Joan the longest and has fought for and with Zoe the most. Mary Theresa Archbold may not have much stage time with the smaller role of Laura, but she makes the most of it with some pointed glances and the matter-of-fact resignation she expresses with her body.