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Play explores the line between faith and delusion

Lorraine Graves   Jan-24-2019

The Christmas pageant doesn't turn out as planned when a student with a fear of heights is tapped to play the angel, in Pacific Theatre's 'A Prayer for Owen Meany.' (Richmond's Shelby Wyminga on the far right.)

Photo courtesy Pacific Theatre


They say good actors produce believable characters. Great actors disappear into their characters. Such was local actor, Shelby Wyminga’s skill that I didn’t find her until two thirds of the way through Pacific Theatre’s “Prayer for Owen Meany” when she appeared as a pregnant, impoverished teenager.

I then realized, she had been that young child and the bored teenager. Each was so different from the real Wyminga, and from each other role, that I didn’t connect them at first. Not bad for a seasoned professional, let alone for a young apprentice, like Wyminga.

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Simon Bent’s adaptation of the John Irving novel compresses a 617-page novel into a 135-minute play retaining all the high points. Irving is known for his insightful, lengthy novels detailing a life of a quirky person and those around him.

Director Ian Farthing describes the play and Owen Meany: “What happens when we come across someone with an absolutely certain belief that they are here for a purpose?” Owen Meany stretches everyone’s credulity, exploring the line between blind faith and fantasy.

The set is simple and flexible, predominantly chairs of varying size and a basketball hoop. Its flexibility works well to set the scene.

Other than one late sound cue, where the radio, that is often turned off and on, requiring those in the sound booth to watch with eagle’s eyes the fingers of an actor on stage, the sound and lighting work well, as does the custom music by Rick Colhoun, also a Pacific Theatre apprentice, to create a well-rounded whole, a picture through time of a host of characters’ interwoven lives.

The sight-lines are all good in this alley theatre. The sound of the actors’ voices, crystal clear. Of particular note is the storm effect—entirely believable. It made us jump.

Julie White and Liz Gao’s costumes flesh out each character, helping make it clear who they are before they move or speak, adding to the whole.

As Owen Meany, Chris Lam believably offers us exactly the character in the book and proves that diversity needn’t just mean casting a Latinx as a Latinx; it can mean casting the best person for the role, regardless of ancestry. Kudos to Pacific Theatre and Ensemble Theatre Company for this and other examples of colour-blind casting.

Owen is the story’s truth teller, even when they are uncomfortable or humorous truths, as when the young Owen Meany talks about the minister using a doll in the nativity play: “But we always have a real baby. You can’t fool Jesus.”

As his best friend, John Wheelwright, Tariq Leslie helps us suspend our disbelief when this adult actor plays a child, a teenager, a young adult and then an older man reflecting on the meaning of his best friend’s life. Leslie wears many hats. He is also the producer of the play and artistic director of Ensemble Theatre Company.

It would mean listing the entire cast to highlight the outstanding performances. Each is that good. Like the multiple offerings at a good bakery, the large cast—with over two dozen roles—each has its own distinctive flavour. They are vivid and, in the case of the retired cook, hilarious.

In fact, the acting throughout the play was solid. If you want to see a good story, well-told in a professional production, this is well-worth seeing.

As Farthing says, “Live theatre is a wonderful arena for telling such a story, and because it’s not real, our imaginations are engaged as an active partner in the process.”

As Owen Meany says, “I believe we are all here for a purpose.”

A Prayer for Owen Meany” runs through Feb. 9 at Pacific Theatre, 1440 W 12th Ave (at Hemlock), Vancouver

Pacific Theatre is now accepting applications for their 2019-20 apprenticeships. Email Paige to apply. Paige@pacifictheatre.org


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