As the play begins, Hannah (Jill Clayburgh), a progressive Episcopalian minister, is in the process of hiring a young writer, Brandt (Hamish Linklater), to help her pen a book about a newly discovered manuscript that appears to be a lost gospel -- one that may predate those found in the Bible. Soon after Brandt begins his job, Hannah notices the chemistry brewing between him and her wayward son Thomas (Luke MacFarlane), and she makes an unusual request that has unexpected consequences for all three of them.
Though the play is full of philosophical and theological debates, director Mark Brokaw rightly emphasizes the personal stakes that each of the characters have in such discussions. Is religion a crutch? Is the Bible a "haphazardly edited compilation," as Hannah puts it? Are pain and suffering really a part of God's plan? Such questions could easily come across as rhetorical abstractions, but the characters' attempts to answer them illuminate their past and present crises.
The play also has a refreshing take on the overlap between religion and homosexuality; for these three characters, it's simply not a big deal. While Brandt initially frames his lack of faith within the context of the church's treatment of gays and lesbians, Hannah immediately sets his mind at ease in terms of her own position on the subject. Both Brandt and Thomas' experiences as gay men have an impact upon their relationships with Hannah and with each other, but their sexuality is not the source of the conflicts and difficulties that arise amongst them.
Linklater delivers a brilliantly understated, yet emotionally resonant performance as Brandt, capturing the young man's fears, doubts, longings, and insecurities without ever hitting a false note. Clayburgh endows Hannah with both charisma and a reservoir of quiet strength. While Brandt's emotions are often raw and exposed, Hannah's are safely tucked away and appear only fleetingly. MacFarlane has a dynamic presence, but he pushes a little too hard. He indicates Thomas' feelings instead of opening up and allowing the audience to see his pain and vulnerability. As a result, the character comes across as unsympathetic, particularly in his final scene.
Set designer Allen Moyer has constructed a handsome albeit cluttered study, taking his cue from lines of dialogue that refer to panels of stained glass and piles of unshelved books. Mary Louise Geiger does some nice work with the lighting to indicate both time of day and changes in the weather. Michael Krass' costumes and Lewis Flinn's original music and sound design also make positive contributions to the production.
"I want my windows clear of stain," says Hannah at one point. She's not just referring to the stained glass windows that she dislikes, but also to her desire to have a clear view of God and an understanding of His role in both the joys and tragedies of our everyday lives. However, such clarity is elusive. The Busy World Is Hushed does not attempt to provide definitive answers to the questions of faith that it brings up. In the end, the extent to which the characters' beliefs have changed is uncertain, although it is clear that they have been challenged.
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