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: Sanders Family Christmas (Provision Theatre)

  
  

A down home Christmas with brains to match its heart

  
  

Sanders Family Christmas - Provision Theater Chicago

   
Provision Theater presents
 
Sanders Family Christmas   
   
Written by Connie Ray
Conceived by
Alan Bailey
Directed by
Tim Gregory
at
Provision Theater, 1001 W. Roosevelt (map)
Through Dec 23  | 
tickets: $15-$28  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

A bluegrass musical set in a Baptist church at the start of World War II?  Let’s just say that I went into Sanders Family Christmas with low hopes. From the corny promotional images, I got the impression that Disney’s Country Bears are probably a more nuanced group of characters, and I feared the inevitably high cheese factor that comes with a traveling Christian family band. To my surprise and delight, Connie Ray Sanders Family Christmas - Provision Theater Chicago 3and Alan Bailey’s musical defies all expectations, crafting one of the best Christmas shows that I have ever seen. Director Tim Gregory and his outstanding ensemble of actors do an exceptional job making the dire circumstances of wartime America feel real.

Despite being the direct sequel to Smoke on the Mountain, no previous knowledge of the Sanders family is required to enjoy this Christmas celebration. With the audience serving as the Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church congregation, the group performs a mix of popular Christmas hymns and bluegrass inspired holiday songs. Between musical numbers, each family member is given an opportunity to witness for the congregation, and these moments are the dramatic high points of the production. As middle class Americans work extra long hours in factories and ration meals to support their troops, the Sanders family provides a source of hope and strength, and Provision Theater’s production is similarly inspiring.

With their only son Dennis (Brian Bohr) preparing to ship off to Marine basic training and twin sister Denise (Christine Barnes) joining the USO, the Sanders family is undergoing its own personal crisis.  Despite their fears, they put their trust in God in hopes that he will ultimately guide them in the direction of the greater good. The characters’ sincerity in their faith prevents them from being preachy or heavy handed, and their chemistry as a family brings a true sense of togetherness to the proceedings. The Sanders understands that they’re putting on a show, and their ever present witty banter keeps the tone light, even as the script delves into bleak areas.

Sanders patriarch Burle (Richard Martlatt) and his brother Stanley (Ron Turner) have two of the strongest moments in the show when they witness. Martlatt showcases his outstanding technique during a fast-paced, ten-minute monologue where he recalls Sanders Family Christmas - Provision Theater Chicagohis days as a trench soldier in World War I. Despite the heavy material, Martlatt’s breezy delivery maintains a level of humor that work in beautiful contrast with the weight of the words. An ex-convict turned gospel recording sensation, Stanley laments his criminal background while praising the Sanders for graciously accepting him into their family. Turner takes his time with his words, deliberating over the perfect way to describe the kindness that his family has shown him. The joy on Turner’s face as he recalls the upswing his life took after he found God warms the heart, and his ultimate conclusion that “God don’t give two cents about talent, he cares about character,” is a wonderful moment of catharsis for the weathered Sanders uncle.

Playing their own instruments and singing without any amplification, the cast is exceptionally talented. Whether they’re wrapping older sister June (Amber Burgess) in Christmas lights, delivering a youth sermon to the children of the church, or singing “Joy To The World” with the audience, they manage to engage on a deeply personal level. With Sanders Family Christmas, Provision has produced an inspiring musical that is as smart as it is heartwarming.

   
 
Rating: ★★★½  
   
  

 

     
     

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