By David Dixon
A good part of the excitement in seeing a new play is the sense of anticipation and discovery, and it’s rare to determine how the emotions and plot are going to unfold. Diversionary Theatre’s production of “The Hour of Great Mercy” features a complex plot dealing with religion, homosexuality and a potentially tense family reunion. In the Alaskan town of Bethlehem, a gay Jesuit priest Ed (Andrew Oswald) has left the Catholic Church and seeks to reconnect with his estranged brother. The reason for the falling out between the two forms part of the play’s plot.
The premise of the drama is inspired by playwright Miranda Rose Hall’s (a founding member and current resident playwright of LubDub Physical Theatre Co. based in New York) relationship with her father.
When Hall was attending the graduate school at the Yale School of Drama, her mentor was acclaimed playwright Sarah Ruhl. While Hall was trying to decide on a topic for her graduate thesis, Ruhl suggested that she write a gift play for someone that she loved.
“Ruhl looked to me and said, ‘I think you’re trying to write a gift play for your father,’” Hall said. “I realized maybe I am.”
The Alaskan setting is important to Hall’s story. She spent a few years working with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest, helping marginalized groups in Anchorage and Missoula, Montana.
“The show is a bit of a love letter to the time I was living in Alaska,” she said. “When writing the script, I felt like I could get into the aspects about what it was like when I was living there.”
Director Rosina Reynolds hasn’t been to Alaska, and she did a significant amount of research in preparation for the rehearsals.
“I watched videos and did visual research on the landscape and the land,” Reynolds said. “I spent a good amount of time in Northern Wisconsin, and you can feel a similar sense of isolation.”
The need to connect to people in a lonely place is a crucial theme of the drama. Reynolds is working closely with Hall to help the writer tell her story on stage.
“I’m a part of her journey in getting her play realized and fulfilled in the way she saw it and wrote it,” she said. “It’s a very collaborative environment.”
While the script specifically deals with Catholicism and homosexuality, one aspect of Hall’s story that Reynolds finds unique is the universality of the plot.
“It’s about the spirituality in all of us, regardless of your denomination,” she said. “She has a fascinating handle of that part of our humaneness.”
There might be a nuanced take on religion, but Hall doesn’t ignore the conflicts Ed faces owing to his sexuality. Reynolds feels that members of the LGBT community will be affected by Ed’s “crisis of faith.”
“Learning to reconcile with inner-faith and stay true to your own sexuality and beliefs is a very large part of the play,” she said.
Hall acknowledges that love is far from absent in the narrative. A theme that she wants theatergoers to take away from the story is that “it is possible to find love in unexpected places.”
“I want audiences to feel like it’s never too late to love somebody,” she said.
Throughout the evening, Hall incorporates both light and dark moments with humor, warmth and levity, especially in scenes where the characters display vulnerability. She does view her theatrical piece as one that’s, overall, an empathetic one.
With an interesting premise and a talented cast of mostly local artists including Tom Stephenson, Patrick Mayuyu and Dana Case, Diversionary’s latest production gives San Diegans an opportunity to watch a new work from a rising playwright. The experience should be one that is both personal and universal.
“The Hour of Great Mercy” is running at Diversionary Theatre through March 3. For tickets or more information, visit diversionary.org or call 619-220-0097.
—David Dixon is a freelance film and theater writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.