As he tends to the barren wasteland of dirt and scattered objects on Mark Wendland's expansive set, Samuel talks about his time as a minister in New Mexico, the nine years spent raising a daughter with his wife Miriam, and a recent incident that has forever changed his relationship with his daughter and his God. While wending his way through these tales--which, the audience suspects, will take on greater significance as the play progresses--he imparts many thoughts about day-to-day rituals, fatherhood, loss, suffering, and religion. With the help of Bacon's solid and genuine performance, McDonald skillfully keeps these plates spinning for most of the two-hour evening; but, though Samuel's many threads of thought create interesting ideas and images, they never quite come together.
Samuel tells us that his understanding of God has been shaped, primarily, by three experiences. The first is very Biblical: As a nine-year old, Samuel heard a mysterious voice calling out to him, "Follow me." The second is his encounter with a woman who prays to God every day by cursing at the heavens and the subsequent, tragic bus accident that drove Samuel from his ministerial post.
The third experience is the birth of his daughter. It is his attempt to understand his daughter's rare condition, a disease that has left her with a fine coat of hair all over her body, that drives Samuel's musings. Beginning as an intriguing but hardly revelatory piece concerning questions of spirituality, An Almost Holy Picture becomes more about this little girl's strange affliction and Samuel's struggle to deal with it. Throughout the play, he seems to await an explanation from God as to why his daughter must suffer and, more to the point, why he must watch her suffer.
McDonald's notions vary from the mundane--Samuel compares his life with that of Paul on the road to Damascus and also invokes The Glass Menagerie--to the inspired. At one point, Samuel unpacks a box filled with jars of salsa verde, and the action serves as a striking memorial of the bus accident. The language McDonald uses is sometimes poetic, sometimes unexpectedly funny, sometimes unsettling, but usually very straightforward. It's a pleasant surprise when, in the middle of the first act, Samuel abstractly recreates the confusion between his sleepwalking and his daily life, which he moves through as if sleepwalking; but this is only a diversion in what otherwise feels like a rather conventional, one-character play.
Though McDonald clearly and often too strenuously makes the effort, not everything falls into place by the end of An Almost Holy Picture, and this unevenness may be what gives the play its honesty. After all, how often is a person's journey toward spiritual reconciliation a neat and tidy matter? It is from among this smattering of moments, of significant experiences and memorable characters, that Samuel attempts to solve the puzzle and see the light. Though he eventually arrives at some solace, it is not in the romantically religious way of his first three significant spiritual experiences.
Heather McDonald's work almost captures the strange and complicated life of Samuel Gentle. Even if the picture never develops as clearly as it should, Kevin Bacon creates a convincing and engaging portrait of a man and a father who is searching for meaning and trying to make sense of what God has given him.