Gbenga Akinnagbe in The Thin Place
(© Chris Bennion)
Gbenga Akinnagbe in The Thin Place
(© Chris Bennion)
In The Thin Place, the well-meaning but airless production having its world premiere at Intiman Theatre, questions of god and other serious topics get an airing. The work is based on interviews of roughly a dozen locals by reporter Marcie Sillman, and their stories have been weaved by playwright Sonya Schneider and director Andrew Russell into kind of a "greatest hits" of existential crisis.

The linchpin is Isaac (Gbenga Akinnagbe), a disillusioned young Pentecostal man plagued by mysterious seizures. Accompanying Isaac on his journey of faith (a device that often feels forced), we meet 10 other characters (all played by Akinnagbe) as they face their biggest tests. A woman tells of her narrow escape from the shooter who stalked the halls of the Seattle Jewish Federation. A South African man (who comes across, oddly, as an angry, frozen professor) recounts the laying on of hands that cured him of a childhood illness. There's also a female Mormon missionary, an Episcopalian-turned-Buddhist-monk, a Native woman reunited with her tribe after a long separation, a young Islamic woman who chooses to wear the hajib after 9/11, and many more seekers.

Unfortunately, this insistence on broad democratic representation of racial, gender, and sexual diversity dilutes the onstage drama. As it strains after meaning, The Thin Place forgets to breathe. (It was a huge relief when, well into the show, we were allowed a single laugh.) Russell bulldozes right through many of the life-changing moments recounted by the characters. Its most powerful scene is its most understated, as Akinnagbe crouches in a tight square of light to tell the story of a Cambodian man's confinement in a Vietnamese prison. Chained to the floor of a tiny, dark cell for months on end, given the most meager of rations, he transforms his rage when he decides to see the face of the divine in his guards.

Akinnagbe is an athletic performer, and ricochets around the stage at full throttle, often with chin thrust forward and up, ready to wrestle life's ineffable questions to the mat. He's at his best when portraying angst-ridden Isaac (bouncing on the balls of his feet and shifting his voice into teen up-talking mode) and he finds great depth leaning into the role of Isaac's seen-it-all atheist uncle.

But the demands of playing all 11 roles sorely test his limits. The transitions from one character to the next are uneven, and he and Russell often resort to a vocabulary of dumbed-down gestures to announce a new storyteller. The women are thinly portrayed, each depicted with the exact same gesture of hand to chest.

Etta Lilienthal's set design gets it right. A central ramp bridges a dirt-and-rock-strewn stage to ascend to a higher plane, nicely suggesting the meeting place between heaven and earth. (Watch for the nifty baptism effect late in the play.) Framing the ramp, three opaque, layered squares are like a mirror reflecting itself into infinity.

In its final few moments, with Akinnagbe slowly descending that central ramp, the work finally delivers an unexpected reward: snippets of the actual recordings of the 11 people who shared their stories. Their voices are immediately compelling -- far more so than anything seen or heard in the previous 90 minutes -- and suddenly breathe new life onto the stage.