The shadow of death darkens the already limited daylight of fictitious Bethlehem, Alaska, in Diversionary Theatre’s world-premiere presentation of Miranda Rose Hall’s The Hour of Great Mercy. Marrieds Maggie and Roger are grieving the loss of their daughter Rachel, accidentally killed in a hunting accident by her female lover, who later committed suicide. Maggie (Dana Case) tries to cope by teaching gun-safety classes and clutching a self-help book as if it were a Bible. Roger (Tom Stephenson), who believes his daughter was murdered by her lover, has channeled his grief into bitterness, rage and hatred, broadcasting it to the Bethlehem few from the shed he’s converted into a one-man volunteer radio station.
When Roger’s brother Ed (Andrew Oswald), a Jesuit priest who’s on Roger’s hate list for having memorialized both Rachel and her lover, turns up in Bethlehem, he has numbing news: He’s been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease and plans to shoot himself to death “by the river.” The river, of course, will loom metaphorically throughout The Hour of Great Mercy, in words and song.
Complicating the circumstances but providing uplift is Ed’s encountering a young nurse named Joseph (Patrick Mayuyu) in the church where they’ve both gone to pray. They quickly fall in love, and when Roger scorns Ed’s gentle plea to reconcile their family ties, Joseph becomes both Ed’s lover and caretaker. For almost total comic relief there is unfiltered, plain-spoken Irma (Eileen Rivera), who’s connected to almost everyone in some way and who milks all the humor in the play’s portrayal of Catholic ritual.
Though Hall’s storytelling is packed with intimations about forgiveness, the fragility of life, and, blatantly, the complications of spiritual faith, The Hour of Great Mercy is a showcase for a couple of exceptional performances. Oswald’s, especially in the second act when Ed is in the throes of his insidious disease, is subtly powerful. Inhabiting the devastated Roger, Stephenson’s tortured silences are as startling as his eruptions. Rosina Reynolds directs a production that is best when immersed in its contemplative moments and not trying to be ironical or, as with Irma, so in search of easy laughs.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 2/13/19.)
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David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.