Faith is an uncertain thing. It is meant to provide surety about all of life’s highs and lows, planting the faithful in a philosophy that demonstrates how belief outlasts turmoil and is eventually rewarded. But how do we know faith will be rewarded? We don’t. We simply must believe it will. That’s a tall order for the characters in the Griffin Theatre’s “The Harvest,” a hodgepodge group of lonely men and women who place their faith in God because little makes sense to them on the earthly plane. Playwright Samuel D. Hunter often writes about the quiet desperation of the plains, as one friend put it to me after exiting the theater, but in this play, his characters’ desperation about religious belief serves as both a set of wings and an anchor weighing them down.
Josh (Raphael Diaz) is an evangelical Christian who has just lost his father, and announced via email to his estranged sister Michaela (Paloma Nozicka) that he is moving to the Middle East to serve out a lifelong mission of helping people and helping them know Christ. He leaves in a matter of days. She appears in his church’s basement to talk some sense into him, and theirs is not the only conflict that rattles its cream-colored walls. Married couple Marcus (Taylor Del Vecchio) and Denise (Kathryn Acosta) fight about their placement in the mission’s main office, and Tom (Colin Quinn Rice) is tortured by the permanent loss of best friend Josh, while struggling with anxiety and issues of identity on top of that. Only Ada (Kiayla Ryann), their training leader, seems unfazed by larger questions of purpose, vocation, and belief.
The play opens with an extended sequence of the characters praying in tongues, building to an incoherent and discordant conclusion. Director Jonathan Berry gives this scene the space it needs to drive home the intense need each character feels in reaching out, and the awful disappointment in not connecting with that larger force. I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if he had given later scenes the same attention to detail and intensity. While the ensemble creates a fantastically awkward church politeness before jumping into alarming philosophical debates, Hunter’s script calls for the type of continual torment that seems beyond at least one performer. Rice is hard to watch as a person coming unmoored, and you believe every single second of their doubt and conflict. Acosta is also fine in the hard role of a woman who is barely allowed to talk about what she wants before her husband and community decide what’s best for her. Ryann’s escape to her Starbucks cup paints her as a leader one sip away from snapping. But Diaz, at least in the performance I saw, doesn’t reach the depths of despair necessary to reveal how hopefully he is waiting for a sign from God. When the sign finally arrives, Berry’s direction feels unfocused because the lead performance felt unfocused within that moment. And I’m not sure that was Hunter’s intention with the script.
Set designer Sotirios Livaditis has created a wonderful facsimile of every church basement I have ever seen. The stained and grey carpet, the distressed garbage can, the inspirational posters lining the walls to brighten the dim space up — all of it is familiar to this minister’s daughter, and a clear representation of the conflict at hand. What flashy deliverance from the Lord could possibly await people in a space such as this?
Hunter doesn’t disappoint in answering that last question. While faith may not be true in the sense that it leads these characters to work against their instincts, desires, and relationships, its mystery is part of the reward. If we understood exactly why we believe what we believe, if we could explain it simply and easily, wouldn’t our beliefs lose power over time? For these people living on the edge, the doubt more than the faith is what keeps them going.
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Faith without works is dead, unless you’re waiting for signs.
DIE RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”
Show: “The Harvest”
Venue: The Den Theatre (1331 N Milwaukee Ave)