These are dark days roiled with calamity and ruin. The oceans, the Amazon, the very air we breathe — they are at risk, and us along with them. Toss into the mix re-emergent fascism, political corruption, unaffordable healthcare and the crippling price of higher education — and yeah, we could all use a good miracle or two to tide us over till the Apocalypse.
This appears to be the well of angst into which Eric Coble dips his pen in his 2017 one-act play, These Mortal Hosts, now being brilliantly performed in Akron by None Too Fragile Theatre. Born in Scotland, raised on Navajo and Ute reservations in the American Southwest and now residing in Cleveland Heights, Coble is a world-class playwright whose myriad previous works — The Velocity of Autumn, My Barking Dog and Fairfield, among them — have been performed on and off Broadway, in all 50 states and on several continents. Along the way, Coble has garnered an armload of awards and recognitions, including an Emmy nomination, two Distinguished Play Awards for Best Adaptation from the American Alliance for Theatre and Education, and a 2007 Cleveland Arts Prize.
These Mortal Hosts — part magical realism, part sly critique of our faith in faith — made its world premiere at the Cleveland Play House in 2017 as part of the New Ground Theater Festival. Imaginative, haunting and bursting with dialog both funny and eloquent, the plot rides on the backs of three characters: the emotionally repressed butcher, Earl; the sexually repressed loan officer, Phyllis; and the gonzo, ragingly hormonal high-schooler, Meaghan. In lesser hands, these three could come off as tired stereotypes; in Coble's, however, they are imbued with little quirks, desires and backstories that turn them into fully realized human beings.
Of course, words only take us so far. The talent and artistic vision that inform those words is what makes this a play instead of a book. Happily, the cast in this production — Madison Ellis as the histrionic Meaghan, Mary Werntz as uptight Phyllis and, especially, David Vegh as the sweet, sad butcher Earl — deliver compelling performances that make their trials and tribulations tug at our hearts, even as we question the origins of their difficulties.
You see, each of these characters has come to believe they are possessed by something larger than themselves. Down-to-earth Earl, suffering from a crippling case of traditional masculinity, suddenly feels he has been inhabited by a force that is literally expanding his heart. He marvels at the new intensity of color, sound and scent; he laughs uproariously at coworkers' lame jokes; and the act of butchering a carcass now reduces him to tears.
Phyllis, an unmarried, middle-aged, lapsed Catholic and owner of two cats — that she views not as children, she assures us, but as housemates; "I just happen to be the tallest" — doesn't actually recall having sex in the past seven years ... but finds herself pregnant, nevertheless.
And Meaghan, a distraught teen in the immediate aftermath of her friends' death in an auto accident, believes she's inhabited by an angel (who, among other miracles, helps her ace a Spanish test) and takes on the burden of proclaiming Phyllis' upcoming "virgin" birth.
But are these miracles or are they medical conditions, repurposed by the sufferers into something more meaningful than mere heart disease, pathological guilt, or stress-sparked schizophrenia?
When crowds begin to gather to gawk at the "Virgin Mother," and candle-lit vigils are set up on her lawn, it becomes clear that the urgent desire to find meaning in the essential meaninglessness of existence isn't limited to this trio alone. And when the play's powerful climax — prompted, tellingly, by a gun-toting preacher — leads to a limp denouement, Meaghan's insistence that, "You just gotta have faith," reinforces the folly of our continual struggle to make Something out of Nothing.
Under the direction of veteran Northeast Ohio actor and theater professor Bob Ellis, the cast gives the audience plenty to work with.
As the uptight Phyllis, Mary Werntz is perfection, full of forced smiles and a straight spine. As Meaghan, Madison Ellis gives us a thoroughly obnoxious teen — wild-eyed, loud and delusional — who has all the signs of mental illness. Hers is a highly physical performance, and she delivers it with often chilling results, rendering Meaghan's fanaticism every bit as frightening as it is understandable. And David Vegh, as the folksy, slow-talking Earl, turns in one of the most memorable performances of the year, conveying whole worlds of feeling in a smile, or a frown, or a gently raised eyebrow. Even the way he removes his soiled butcher's apron seems important! And his speechless waltz with Earl's invisible wife Helen, performed to Neil Young's "Harvest Moon," conveys all we will ever need to know about the wellspring of love that flows beneath Earl's concretized exterior.
Speaking of music, technical director and sound designer Brian Kenneth Armour adds warmth and dimension to the otherwise minimalistic set with effects that range from the violent slamming of Earl's butcher knife to gentle ocean waves and a humming chorus of "Amazing Grace." And the use of Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic" as an opener felt both fitting and a little funny.
The action takes place on (and occasionally off) the small thrust stage at the heart of None Too Fragile's new home in the former Coach House Theater on West Exchange Street in Akron. With a spacious lobby and comfortable auditorium seating, the small house is a pleasant, welcoming space for this notable company whose stated goals include the aim "to provoke and stir dialogue," while giving "a voice to the great playwrights of this generation."
Madness, miracles, or medical conditions, this first-rate production of These Mortal Hosts clearly fills the bill.