The supernatural power at the heart of Joshua remains too enigmatic to give the show much drive
The most beneficial clause in the creative-writer insurance policy deals with suspension of disbelief. Basically, an audience will tolerate the weirdest, most fantastic or downright horseshit phenomena as long as there is something recognizably real to the story.
It’s why everything from Hamlet’s father’s ghost, gold rings that turn the wearer invisible and the world of Pandora somehow resonate: There is something human to the tales, and the unexplainable and familiar coexist on page, stage or screen.
In the play Joshua, receiving its world premiere at STAGEStheatre, A.L. Trone has created a world in which the supernatural and natural easily coexist. In fact, they might do so too easily.
In a quiet, Midwestern farm town in 1932, church picnics are the big social gatherings. Young men court young ladies. And while premarital sex, drinking and wayward youths do exist, everything seems quite manageable and even bucolic.
Except for one thing: One of the townsfolk, a soft-spoken, kindly codger named Joshua, possesses a power capable of both great healing and destruction. It’s the kind of power that, a few decades earlier, might have seen Joshua burned at the stake or stoned by his neighbors. But even though it doesn’t look too pretty in practice—Joshua huffs, puffs, shiver and moans when drawing upon it—and the townspeople are equally fascinated and terrified, Joshua’s power is tolerated because he’s a simple man who believes he’s doing the Lord’s work when using his power.
That is, until Ace (Chad Glazener), the cocky, headstrong leader of the nearest thing to pass for a gang in a Depression-era farm town, gets it into his fool head to tease Joshua about his powers. Seems Ace’s pal Sam (Russ Rosen) has a nasty blemish on his face, and Ace decides to ask—or force—Joshua to remove said scar. Unknown to Ace, his former sweetheart, Faye (Lindsay Sapia), who is in town to visit her sick mother after living in the big city for a year, shares a history with Joshua that she’d rather keep buried, figuratively and literally.
Ace’s teasing of Joshua sets in motion a string of events that transforms a relentlessly simple play about equally simple characters into a taut, intense affair with terrible consequences.
Trone apparently has a history with mysterious healers. A press release states that she began writing Joshua “after interviewing longtime residents of Bader, Pleasantville and Rushville, Illinois, where she first encountered the stories surrounding a backwoods healer named Joshua Knous.”
Seems the “real” Joshua was a simple, God-fearing man who “lived his life shrouded in mystery and plagued by hostile town gossip.”
It’s the same for Trone’s Joshua. Almost. The gossip doesn’t seem all that hostile, and for someone who possesses an incredible power, Joshua doesn’t seem all that mysterious.
And that’s a big flaw in Trone’s play. Though she’s written a well-spun yarn that keeps the viewer’s attention, the simple truth is the one element in her story that makes it distinctive is Joshua’s power. And though Joshua is less about Joshua than it is about Faye and Ace’s clouded history, his power is the most interesting element of the story. And it almost feels like an afterthought.
The lack of mystery to a highly mysterious energy could stem from Ken Dalena’s portrayal of Joshua. While believable and likeable, his performance evinces no danger, no real sense that what he perceives as a gift could possibly be a curse.
Or maybe the lack of gravitas stems from Elizabeth Serra’s direction. It’s straightforward, unadorned and deceptively simple. But, again, there isn’t a great deal of mystery to the proceedings. Joshua’s power, for the most part, is taken at face value, and there is danger to that unknown, unverifiable power.
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But the real lack of mystery comes down to Trone’s script. To her credit, she doesn’t expend a great deal of energy trying to explain Joshua’s power in long-winded metaphysical or occult terms. By merely presenting his power as something real in the world of the play, it makes it very easy to buy into. But, still, something more would raise the dramatic stakes. Other than Joshua claiming his power stems from God and a couple of townspeople wondering if it is actually a conduit from a more incendiary region, no one seems that curious about it.
That’s fine for the people who have lived alongside Joshua for most of their lives. But the audience hasn’t. And by not even allowing us to truly wonder about the source and shape of Joshua’s mystery, the play’s internal engine fails to combust.
Spoon-feeding an audience is never good, and yes, there are more things in heaven and earth than dreamt of in our philosophy. And no one’s asking Trone for all the answers. But challenging the audience to ask more questions would elevate her already-well-told play to a far more engaging level.
Joshua at STAGEStheatre, 400 E. Commonwealth, Fullerton, (714) 525-4484; www.stagesoc.org. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Jan. 30. $12-$18.