The Healing Is Must See Theater

The Healing 2“The hardest thing to do is to hold onto God…it’s easy to see the darkness.” – Zoe, The Healing

The tenets of Christian Science dictate that illness is a spiritual, rather than a physical, matter and that life can be handled with a return to what they see as a “primitive Christianity and its lost element of healing.” As a result of this resistance to treating symptoms via Western medicine, there have been dozens of notable instances of children and adults dying from neglect within the faith. Samuel D. Hunter’s starkly intimate play The Healing explores the aftermath of not only growing up in the Church of Christ, Scientist, but views the religion through the particular lens of children (and adults) with disabilities. If illness is an illusion, than what of genetic or chromosomal disorders for which there are little to no medical treatment? And, most controversially, what of mental disabilities that often fail to get proper due even in the most secular of medical environments? Hunter’s play, originally presented by Theater Breaking Through Barriers (a company dedicated to promoting the work of artists with disabilities), explores a group of friends who, pigeonholed by their infirmities, are subjected to the psychological abuse of a camp counselor. Led to believe that they could “pray the chair away,” the kids all manage to band together and get the facility closed down. It is only now, after 25 years, that the friends reunite for the funeral of one of their own.

While Hunter’s script does call for certain parts to be played by actors with disabilities (the character of Sharon, for instance, portrayed here with a beautifully simmering rage by Merynn Flynn, must be wheelchair-bound and the part of Greg is written for a deaf actor), there is a certain amount of grey area where the cast can hint, subtly or otherwise, at their character’s particular issue. Epic Theatre’s current production, directed with a skillful grace by Ryan Stevenson, features performers both with and without disabilities and the end result is a sensitive, often heartbreaking look at faith, friendship and the nature of forgiveness. With only one weekend left, The Healing is one of those sleeper plays, a production that will be talked about long after people have managed to not see it. A shame, that, for this is one of the more important stagings by any Rhode Island theater this season, and it deserves a larger outing.

Using the welcoming confines of the Contemporary Theater Company’s stage in Wakefield (CTC is part of the Rhode Island Theatre Alliance along with Epic and Mixed Magic), Stevenson wisely chooses not to incorporate the entire room. Just a couch and pair of end tables (overshadowed by a wall of boxes and tchotchkes behind them) create a space intimate enough that the audience is carefully ushered in and pointed to ideal seating. Actors are already onstage, dolefully watching the Shopping Channel while they pick at sheetcake, post-funeral. As Sharon (the aforementioned Flynn) and Donald (an understated and brilliantly delicate Andrew Conley) wade in the awkward silence, punctuated only with the kind of staccato bursts that can be found wherever conversation has ceased to be an option, we learn that their friend Zoe has passed. Their onerous task is to clear her apartment of the overwhelming detritus of a television shopaholic and navigate the sensitive nature of Zoe’s passing. As their friends gather, we find that only Sharon, who remained the closest with Zoe, knows the full truth of what precipitated her death and the five of them must come to terms with each other, their detrimental religious upbringing and their adulthood.

Gary (played by Adam Preston with an endearing, unfeigned sweetness) is the only outsider here, dragged along to Idaho by Laura (a multilayered Stephanie Traversa who brings her signing skills back to an Epic stage – she learned ASL for Epic’s Tribes a few years back). Gary asks what we all wonder – if the Christian Science camp was so bad, why didn’t they just leave? That question, and the larger question of their acceptance of *any* faith is central to coming to terms with Zoe’s death. Zoe (an achingly fragile and hauntingly elegiac Lauren Wilford), it seems, never gave up on the faith and continued to rely on prayer instead of medicine. However, Zoe’s ills, though increasingly physical, are also quite mental and, ultimately spiritual. She tells Sharon of the “angel calls” she receives and the voices that tell her to dance in the traffic. Sharon, Zoe’s “healer,” responds with mixed parts acquiescence and medical subterfuge.

The friends (rounded out by a worldweary, but steely Caroyln Coughlin, as Bonnie) all question whether Zoe could have been saved (if even from herself), but the central focus of the anger and resentment lies in Joan, the former camp counselor/pastor who harangued them, seemingly because of their weaknesses, into believing that their conditions were all a result of some moral failing. Her presence is felt throughout The Healing, a name invoked in anger, fear and an overwhelming sense of injustice. It is Sharon who bears the most resentment, mostly because she has seen the unhealed, the raw damage of Zoe, who never seemed to grow beyond the tweenage years at which they were allowed to step away from it all. Zoe declares, in flashback, “I’m asking for God and I’m not getting anything.” Sharon’s agnosticism (if not downright atheism) is directly rooted in Zoe’s downfall, as unanswered prayers (sometimes couched in rudimentary psychoanalysis) give way to a resignation that is far more dangerous to Zoe than a case of strep throat. The attitude toward Joan varies with the temperance of each character, some, like Donald, offering a détente of sorts, given the time that has passed. When Joan finally does appear, our dislike is visceral and immediate. Whether or not she earns the forgiveness of Sharon, or anyone else (including us) is at the heart of The Healing, and true to life, there are no easy answers for anyone.

The ensemble work here is excellent, but each one of the cast has a chance to shine. Coughlin’s moment of vulnerability with Gary (unaided by the ASL interpretations of Laura) is touching and melancholy and turns what could be an overly somber characterization into a complex series of harrowing, but uniquely interesting insights. It is Flynn and Conley who come into their own, however, each one delivering stunning performances of contrasting strength and vulnerability. Director Stevenson’s sound design is also one of the better-executed soundscapes we’ve heard in a long time. Aside from the surreal underscoring of the Shopping Channel voice in the background, a series of atmospheric sounds – some practical, some abstract – drift subtly in and out, just low enough to make us question whether we heard them at all. The intimate lighting, the cramped quarters and the willful disregard of “traditional” blocking allows for a “fly on the wall” atmosphere where we are allowed to see this moment, these people, in all their heartbreak, and maybe a little of their happiness.

The Healing is intimate, powerful and provokes many more questions than it can answer. Take some time to catch one of the few performances left before it’s gone. This is one of the good ones.

Epic Theatre presents Samuel D. Hunter’s The Healing through Saturday, April 14 at the Contemporary Theater Company. 327 Main St, Wakefield. Visit the CTC website for more details or purchase directly via


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