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A CurtainUp Review
The Healing
By Charles Wright

You have to face some pretty stark realities being a smart, religious person in your . . . your thirties. — Zoe, the dead friend, in a flashback
Shannon DeVido as Sharon
In the theater season that concluded two months ago, Broadway belatedly featured a performer in a wheelchair that wasn't a stage prop. That performer is the supremely talented Ali Stroker, who played Anna in Deaf West Theatre's revival of Spring Awakening.

Time will tell whether this milestone marks a coming era of opportunity for theater artists with physical challenges, but this month Paralympic medalist Katy Sullivan is playing opposite Gregg Mozgala, an actor with cerebral palsy, in Martyna Majok's drama Cost of Living at the Williamstown Theater Festival. And Madison Ferris has been cast as Laura, alongside Sally Field and Joe Mantello, in the upcoming New York production of The Glass Menagerie. When that revival begins previews in March 2017, Ms. Ferris will follow Ms. Stroker as a Broadway performer for whom the wheelchair is more than a stage property.

The Off-Broadway company Theater Breaking Down Barriers (TBDB), currently presenting Samuel D. Hunter's new play The Healing, is at the forefront of a movement to ensure increasing opportunities for physically challenged actors in New York City. Founded more than 25 years ago as Theater by the Blind, TBDB welcomes (in the company's own words) "artists of all physical abilities and disabilities." TBDB commissioned The Healing with funds provided by the New York State Council on the Arts.

Hunter, a distinctive voice among American playwrights under 40, is a MacArthur Foundation Fellow (and recipient of a "genius grant"). A prolific writer, he's author of The Whale, which collected a brace of awards when produced by Playwrights Horizons in 2013.

In his plays, Hunter depicts the spiritual hunger and emotional conflicts of rural and small-town characters who speak the crass, goofy argot of haphazardly educated millennials yet reflect themes as timeless as anything in classical drama. The Healing concerns four adults approaching middle age who've been friends since their time as the only disabled children at a Christian summer camp. The four have come together to mourn a crony who has committed suicide. Their reunion takes place in the Idaho community where the now defunct camp was located and where their dead friend has lived as a single adult. (Hunter grew up in Idaho and many of his plays are set there.)

At camp, the members of the group were proselytized by Joan (Lynne Lipton), a Christian Scientist who was their principal counselor. Joan's evangelizing, when later exposed to scrutiny, caused sufficient public alarm to result in the camp going out of business. "You told me I could pray myself out of this wheelchair," Sharon (Shannon DiVido) recalls accusatorily when the former counselor appears as an unexpected — and unwelcome — visitor after Zoe's funeral.

Of the former campers, only Zoe, the suicide, joined the ranks of Christian Science; and, as an adult, she suffered debilitating anxiety about her inability to heal herself through faith. Yet each member of the group recalls being vulnerable to Joan's aggressive dogmatics; and, as they sort through Zoe's effects, preparing to turn her little house back to the landlord, the friends explore the impact of those summers.

The narrative of The Healing shifts back and forth between present and past, permitting Zoe (Pamela Sabaugh) to speak for herself. As beautifully drawn by Hunter and sensitively portrayed by Sabaugh, Zoe reflects the human yearning for the numinous, the challenge of articulating religious feelings in a secular era, and the difficulty of sustaining faith in the midst of skeptics and atheists.

Hunter has written The Healing for challenged actors, though he specifies the disabilities of only two characters — Sharon (who is in a wheelchair) and Greg (John McGinty), the deaf boyfriend accompanying Bonnie (Jamie Patrone) to the funeral. The cast, directed by Stella Powell-Jones, is an ensemble of admirable balance and synchronicity.

As they dismantle Zoe's living room, boxing up the tacky tchotchkes that she ordered obsessively from home-shopping telecasts, DiVido, Patrone, McGinty, David Harrell (excellent in the role of Donald), and Mary Theresa Archibold (droll and funny as Laura) find humor beneath the pathos of Hunter's dialogue, as well as a good deal that's upbeat in their sad roles.

In this drama of recognizable characters and deep emotion, Hunter delivers no messages and steers clear of anything in the way of easy catharsis. If, in the end, The Healing is somehow less than satisfying, that's only because real life — both for those faced with monumental challenges and those who aren't — inevitably involves disappointment.

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The Healing by Samuel D. Hunter
Directed by Stella Powell-Jones
Cast: Mary Theresa Archbold (Laura), Shannon DeVido (Sharon), David Harrell (Donald), Lynne Lipton (Joan), John McGinty (Greg), Jamie Petrone (Bonnie), and Pamela Sabaugh (Zoe)
Scenic Design: Jason Simms
Costume Design: Christopher Metzger
Lighting Design: Alejandro Fajardo
Sound Design: Brandon Wolcott
Production Stage Manager: Anne Huston
Running Time: 95 minutes, without intermission
Presented by Theater Breaking Through Barriers (Nicholas Viselli, Producing Artistic Director) at The Clurman Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
Opened 6/22/16; closing 7/16/16
Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm , Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 3 and 8 pm; and Sunday at 3 pm.
Reviewed by Charles Wright at a 6/25/16 press performance

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