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Eye of God

Tim Blake Nelson's play about the residents of a small Oklahoma town gets a serviceable yet superficial production.

Judson Jones and Valerie Redd in Eye of God
(© Jennifer Maufrais Kelly)
Tim Blake Nelson's Eye of God, now getting its New York premiere at the Kirk Theatre from Theatre East, is a slightly flawed but moving tale of faith in a fading Oklahoma town and the silence that descends when faith disappears. However, Lisa Devine's production of the work (which is better known from the 1997 film of the same name) is serviceable yet superficial.

Nelson has stated that he borrowed from Thornton Wilder's Our Town in structuring this play, particularly in his call for a barebones set design and in his creation of a homespun narrator to step in and nudge the plot along. Robin Vest provides the minimal set with reasonable efficiency (although there are a couple of brief sightline problems involving a table and a couple of chairs).

It may be thought that there are no secrets in this small town of Kingfisher, Oklahoma, but, ultimately, everyone has their mysteries. Unfortunately, many of the leading players here make stereotypical choices for roles to which, for the most part, the playwright has given three-dimensional life. In Shorey Walker's hands, a waitress at a diner seems to have stepped out of a 1970s sitcom. And Richard Mawe plays the good-hearted, no-nonsense narrator/sheriff with not enough understated eloquence. Both Walker and Mawe seem to have rich emotional palates; it's possible they just need to trust Nelson's material more and do less.

More successful are the engaging Judson Jones and Valerie Redd, who play the couple at the center of the story, a recently sprung ex-convict named Jack and a young, lonely woman named Ainsley, who became his pen pal during his incarceration. Still, there's an obviousness to their performances that telegraphs the conclusion of the play far too early.

Perhaps the strongest supporting performance is given by Benard Cummings as Jack's parole officer, Sprague, infusing his work with humor and pathos. Helen Merino also has some strong moments in a smaller though important part as Ainsley's co-worker and confidante. Ehad Berisha is slightly miscast, but does quite well as Tom, a 14-year-old boy who gets caught up in other people's tragedies. The actor nicely conveys the alternately charming and infuriating sides of a sullen teenager.

By the end of this tale, there's no question about who is guilty of certain legal crimes, but it should be possible to raise murkier questions of moral culpability. Eye of God is a more dangerous play than we are allowed to see here.


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