Stage Review: The Thin Place

Intiman’s conventional but muddled look at our city’s spiritual values.

As the first production under Intiman's new artistic director, Kate Whoriskey—and a rare commission from a local playwright—The Thin Place has some high expectations to live up to. According to Intiman lore, the theater's new associate producer Andrew Russell (a colleague of Whoriskey's, whom she's brought from New York) was moved by an episode of This American Life in which Dan Savage revisits the Catholicism of his youth following the death of his mother. They commissioned KUOW's Marcie Sillman to interview Seattleites who'd also had some kind of religious awakening or tipping point, the transcripts of which became the building blocks for writer Sonya Schneider's play.To link the 10 monologues, Schneider has invented a fictional character named Isaac, the son of a Pentecostal minister in Los Angeles, whose own spiritual crisis causes him to intersect in some way—how exactly is unclear—with the interviewees and to hear their brief stories of religious encounter. It's a setup that could be compelling, but sadly falls short of that.The first hitch is that one actor, Gbenga Akinnagbe (best known as henchman Chris Partlow on The Wire), is called upon to play both Isaac and the other 10 characters—a choice that may have benefits for the production budget, but few when it comes to clarity. In some of the monologues (like that of Isaac's atheist uncle), it's evident that the character is talking to Isaac, while others seem randomly delivered. What do they have to do with Isaac's story? What is the basis of these encounters? Are they hallucinations from the meds he's on for seizure-like episodes? People he actually runs into? How does he experience some of them in Los Angeles and others in Texas before even moving to Seattle? What explains the seemingly arbitrary transmutations of Akinnagbe from Isaac to the others and back again? We don't know, and the play doesn't seem to either. Mystery, time dislocations, and indeterminate and absurd elements can all exist meaningfully in a consistent, intelligible framework.But The Thin Place is neither overtly nor intentionally avant-garde; it seems, rather, to be conventional but muddled.As the naive Isaac, Akinnagbe's energetic charisma is engaging. (Showing up at boot camp, he adorably proclaims "I love the military!" just as a nerdy high-schooler would proclaim a first love.) In hoodie, T-shirt, and cargo pants, he makes muscular use of Etta Lilienthal's psychologically evocative set, on which a dock-like platform of wooden slats projects upward to the back of the stage, passing through a series of concentric square scrims.Still, he lacks the focused intensity or molecular-level precision of a career soloist like Anna Deavere Smith. When he speaks in a high voice and gyrates his hips seductively, playing a Christian woman in a bar, it reads as swish and distracts from her story. On the other hand, it isn't evident that the Episcopalian minister who got defrocked for becoming a Muslim is a woman until the end of her monologue, when she overtly says so.In the best scene, Akinnagbe, as a Cambodian man, speaks with a gentle, accented voice about having to extend Christian love toward his captors in a North Vietnamese prison. Ben Zamora's lighting, which boxes Akinnagbe into a cell-sized rectangle of white light, solidifies the vignette as the most striking and real-feeling in the show.Hollywood producers who've optioned episodes of This American Life have learned the hard way that there's a lot more to adapting real stories into fictional drama than simply having performers act them out. A huge percentage of the impact is dispersed, like heat, in the transfer from personal disclosure to public performance. In the final moments of The Thin Place, some snippets of the real interviews Sillman recorded become audible, and they crackle with life, authenticity, and personhood, while the dramatized words often come across as banal.If you happen to know any religiously dogmatic or spiritually intolerant people, it's conceivable they might find some new ways of looking at the world in The Thin Place, the title of which refers to a meeting point between the sacred and secular. However, to those who have already given up trying to identify exclusively with and defend one perfect faith, the play's ultimate revelation about God (or at least about something divine) being diffused throughout the whole glorious radio spectrum of humanity may seem a little humdrum.The self-serving aspect of two newcomers, Whoriskey and Russell, staging this play "as a way of exploring our new home city" is also a bit patronizing, considering that many of us have lived here quite awhile and don't need the tour. Besides, can you really extract insight into a city's way of thinking from a handful of interviews with people who are, in most cases, highly remarkable?A positive "downstream" product of the play is its website, thethinplace.com, which invites people in and beyond Seattle to share their own experiences with religion. The resulting series of visitor-generated monologues may become "the wisdom of the crowd" on matters spiritual that this play aspires to be.stage@seattleweekly.com

 
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