Review: Wonders Never Cease (Provision Theater)

  
  

Broad brush strokes make paradoxical play

  
  

Wonders Never Cease - Provision Theater - poster

  
Provision Theater presents
   
Wonders Never Cease
  
Adapted and Directed by Tim Gregory
Based on the book by Tim Downs
at Provision Theater, 1001 W. Roosevelt Rd. (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $25-$28  |  more info 

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

Provision TheaterCompany‘s world premier production of Wonders Never Cease has all the trappings of a wacky children’s comedy. Think “Miracle on 34th Street” meets “3 Ninjas”. Its overly simplistic portrayal of religion, faith, people, relationships, right and wrong makes it easy to follow but hard to stomach. Jokes arise out of tired premises, while characters are pulled from the archetype bargain bin. And the ending is so saccharine sweet, it will make your stomach turn.

Caroline Heffernan as Leah - Provision TheaterProvision is known for its religious-themed plays. Its mission is to produce works of "hope, reconciliation and redemption." Wonders Never Cease is no exception. It attempts to dramatically answer the question, "Do angels really exist?" Unfortunately, the sophomoric manner in which it illustrates this theme is so simplistic it’s insulting. It doesn’t matter if you’re a believer or not. The surface-level treatment this weighty topic is given is sadly laughable. By painting with such broad brush strokes, playwright Tim Gregory (who adapted and directed the play and serves as the company’s artistic director) inadvertently creates a number of paradoxes that muddle the meaning and erode the play’s potential.

Wonders Never Cease centers on Leah (the very talented and young Caroline Heffernan), a little girl who claims to have seen an angel on the side of the road. Those close to her are skeptical of her visions, including her mother (Katherine Banks), her mother’s boyfriend (Ryan Kitley) and her teacher (Matt Klingler). Leah’s bizarre visions raise eyebrows, and soon the school is recommending a complete evaluation.

Meanwhile, the boyfriend, Kemp, works as a nurse who isn’t afraid to overstep his authority. When he is assigned to care for a comatose female celebrity (Holly Bittinger), he devises a moneymaking opportunity. This is good news for him, considering he owes big bucks to an East Coast loan shark (Sean Bolger). Kemp, the loan shark, the celebrity’s agent (JoBe Cerny) and a book publisher (Michael Wollner) conspire to fool the celebrity by implanting her with a false religious vision. The plan is that when she eventually comes to, she’ll confuse the ruse for reality and write a best-selling novel. I don’t want to spoil it, but, suffice to say, things go awry.

Despite its weaknesses, the play has several strong points. First, the acting is top tier. Little Heffernan is a darling young actress. It’s hard to keep your eyes off of her. The performers are eloquent and dynamic. Unfortunately the characters they’ve been assigned to are paper-thin. In fact, half are offensive cultural stereotypes. You have an overweight mammy, a wise old black man, an Italian mobster and a Jewish talent agent who occasionally drops some Yiddish and, at one point, refers to himself as a parasite.

A scene from "Wonders Never Cease" at Provision Theater in Chicago.

The play delivers one comedic triumph—the spot on Oprah impression. The opening parody commercial is a funny bit, too. It’s for a book titled Lattes with God and seeks to lampoon all those feel-good, spirituality books on the market. But unfortunately, the play lacks the awareness to understand the slippery slope it establishes. If Lattes with God is absurd, what about the premise of this play? For that matter, what about the books of the Bible, which were notated by men who were also hearing the word of God? Does the presence of a latte make all the difference?

In addition, the play has a very myopic view of spirituality. The cartoonishly villainous bad guys try to create a false dogma, one that centers on the self. Their catchphrase is, "It’s all about you." I get it. This is the "me" generation, and blatant selfishness is wrong. But they confuse the notions of self-love and self-compassion with pride and greed. In the words of Ru Paul, "If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love somebody else?"

On a technical level, Wonders Never Cease is a good play. The production level is high, and the acting is strong. But underneath the high-gloss finish is little more than marshmallow fluff. This is junk food for the brain. It’s accessible and immediately gratifying. But you’ll be hungry for some substance soon after.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Wonders Never Cease runs runs Saturday, April 30 through Sunday, June 5 at Provision Theater located at 1001 W. Roosevelt Rd. The performance schedule is Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. ($28) and Sundays at 3 p.m. ($25). Student and group discounts are available. For tickets call 866.811.4111 or visit www.provisiontheater.org.

  
  

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REVIEW: The Hiding Place (Provision Theater)

Powerful story vividly brought to life on the stage

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Provision Theater presents
 
The Hiding Place
 
Adapted and directed by Tim Gregory
Based on the autobiography of
Corrie ten Boom
at
Provision Theater, 1001 W. Roosevelt (map)
thru May 23rd  |  tickets: $15-$28  |  more info

reviewed by Ian Epstein

The Hiding Place is the story of a brick wall in the ten Boom (sounds close to Tannenbaum) residence in Nazi-occupied Holland during World War II.  The ten Booms are an upstanding, morally righteous Dutch Christian family from Haarlem. There’s Casper ten Boom (Dennis Kelly), the greying patriarch, who, with his tailored suit and clocksmith’s shop, might as well be a stand-in for father time flanked by his THP-Cynthia Judge, Lia Mortensen.jpg two daughters, Betsie ten Boom (Cynthia Judge) and Corrie ten Boom (Lia Mortensen). Betsie has a prodigious commitment to her faith that makes her character appear to toe the line between naivete and sainthood while her sister Corrie makes up for her sister’s sincerity with cynicism, a kind of cynicism crystallized by loss and hindsight since it’s Corrie’s 1971 book that gives the show its title and its content.

The play begins with Corrie ten Boom at a speaking engagement – discussing faith, forgiveness, and the loss of her sister, and what forces moved her to set up the rehabilitative organization to which she is both steward and spokesperson.

All of a sudden and out of the crowd walks a frenetic, apologetic stranger who reveals himself to Corrie and offers money. He explains who he is and where the money is from and at the mere mention of his name, the elderly Corrie’s knees buckle and she collapses in a faint onto a chair, asking after a glass of water.

In what follows, we leave the elderly Corrie ten Boom scene behind and travel back to where things began, starting in the early days of Nazi-occupied Holland when the Dutch underground is hiding deeper and deeper and becoming ever more necessary and desperate.  As the story unfolds, we are told all we need to of the ten Boom family. We watch them celebrate holidays, mourn the loss of a son to prison – all due to a flagrant and patriotic (in all the wrong ways) act of pride that forced a Nazi to smash his piano-playing fingers before hauling him off to prison. We watch the underground melt from a world of friends to a world of ever-more-anonymous and furtive collection of men all and only known as "Mr. Smith." We watch the righteous ten Boom family take in, house, and feed one Dutch Jew after another, each offering the story of flight into hiding as another stroke in the composite portrait of a community facing Nazi destruction. We watch the ten Boom collaborate with an industrious group of construction-minded "Mr. Smiths" to build an impervious, brick-enclosed hiding place. And then we watch as the Gestapo arrives and the ten Booms are betrayed and Betsie and Corrie are carted off to a prison, and a concentration camp and finally after THP- Lia Mortensen.jpg nearly three hours watching faith, hope, and an enduring belief in the goodness of humans clash with unspeakable cruelty, Corrie – and by extension the whole audience (since by this time Corrie is the only continuous presence – the narrator whose trail we follow) – is confronted with an question about the limits of forgiveness.

The Hiding Place is an undeniably powerful story. And in the hands of Provision Theater‘s Artistic Director Tim Gregory, the adaptation boldly and faithfully animates the story. But in a few places (the muddy mix of accents, for example) a gesture intended to reinforce the authenticity of the story and stay as close as possible to the narrative itself gets in the way of telling it and telling it well on stage. Translation from the page onto the stage doesn’t necessarily need to bear in the character’s speech the artifact of their origin. The accents wind up lending the show an inconsistent feel (as any unfamiliar accent might over the course of three hours and so many characters) that detracts from the shows other successes.

Isaac B. Turner‘s costumes and Inseung Park‘s set, for example, offer color and character without any of the trappings of an obscure, unfamiliar accent that isn’t always well-delivered. Park’s set is a post-and-beam skeleton of a house that calls to mind Todd Rosenthal‘s Tony-winning design for August: Osage County. And then, during intermission, the drama-in-a-big-transparent-house element, so familiar to American theater-goers, evaporates into the shapes of an abstracted, oppressive prison-or-concentration-camp. The choice to spend so much time in the grey, faith-testing agony of a concentration camp is a lot to bear and this production, though well wrought, informative, and necessary, is rewarding for its audience without always being kind.

 
 
Rating: ★★½
 
 

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Review: Provision Theatre’s “Cotton Patch Gospel”

“Cotton Patch Gospel” shines a golden ray of humanity

 

Provision Theater presents:

Cotton Patch Gospel
by Chapin, Key and Treyz
directed by Lou Contey
through November 8th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

cottonpatch I hadn’t seen Provision Theater Company’s 2004 Jeff-nominated production of Cotton Patch Gospel, so I couldn’t possibly compare it to their current remounting to inaugurate their new, larger theater space. “Nothing brings out Baptists like a new building,” quips Timothy Gregory, in his role as lead storyteller. That applies as much to the new beginnings for Provision as it does for the characters in the show.

Cotton Patch Gospel emerges from American Bible-Belt culture. With music composed by Harry Chapin, performer of the Grammy-nominated “Cat’s In the Cradle,” and book adapted from Clarence Jordan by Tom Key and Russell Treyz, Cotton Patch Gospel shifts the Gospels of Matthew and John to mid-twentieth century Georgia. Replete with in-jokes for the Southern church-going crowd, it would be narrow in its range of appeal but for the music and lyrics, which evoke the greatest power to unite audiences.

In which case, thank God for a tight band, a swinging chorus, and the light grace and energy with which Gregory reprises his original role. They are the loving spoonful that broadens this show’s message beyond churchy limitations. While the story and lyrics contemporize the sociopolitical religious struggles of the Gospels, the audience becomes awakened to the power plays, hypocrisies, and betrayals that plague humanity’s struggle for justice, community, and the search for spiritual authenticity.

This show owes no small amount of its success to Gregory’s ability to morph from, not only Jesus into his apostles, but also into the darker roles of Herod, (Governor) Pontius Pilate, and a mercenary mega-church preacher. It’s in these momentary roles that Gregory’s aspect takes on shades of George W. Bush and the evangelicals that grace our television screens. He and the his musical team make the most of lyrics that knowingly describe the rationales for the abuse of power and a populace’s collusion with that power.

The production reaches its pinnacle, though, when it successfully depicts Jesus’ own reluctance and anguish at going through the betrayal and death that is coming for him. Likewise, the band and chorus reach a simple yet profound high point in their expression of loss and confusion over Jesus’ death. The resurrection is the joyful relief to this sorrow, but it is precisely these deepest moments of grief that unite the audience in its common humanity.

Provision Theater’s 2004 production was often compared and contrasted with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Cotton Patch Gospel was praised for its kinder, gentler telling of the Jesus story. But I think that simplistic comparison misses the mark. In Gibson’s work we are shocked into fixating on the suffering of Jesus in its gross and uncommon brutality; with Cotton Patch Gospel, we become more aware of all our suffering through Jesus. It is this element that gives this religiously based work more redemptive power and ensures it a more enduring place.

Rating: «««½

 

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