Friday night's presentation of 100 Saints You Should Know played to a half-capacity audience, which is a shame; New Ground Theatre's poignantly personal play deserves more attention, due to its thoughtful script and equally thoughtful performances. And while playwright Kate Fodor's themes of spirituality and sexuality may put off some potential spectators, the story is much more inclusive, in terms of philosophical perspectives, than those themes might suggest.
At its core is a metaphorical dark night of the soul, one in which a person's spiritual life is overwhelmed by senses of loneliness and desolation, and director Chris Jansen has created a production that's tender while also provocative. Despite its potentially polarizing themes, she keeps the play nonjudgmental, with a sympathetic, rather than absolute, position conveyed through portrayals that ask for your acceptance rather than demand it.
Matthew (Nathan Porteshawver) is a priest, dedicated to his faith and his calling, but forced out of his congregation after sexually-suggestive pictures are discovered in his office. His unasked-for sabbatical forces him to meditate on why he had the photos in the first place, leaving him feeling unwelcome in the church and alone, and Porteshawver portrays the role in a subdued manner. With his slow, methodical deliveries, Matthew is a man who is mindful of his words, and Porteshawver - looking as though he's always carefully thinking through why he says what he says - makes it clear that his character is much conflicted.
Theresa (Jamie Em Behncke), meanwhile, is also at a crossroads in life. Haunted by her seedy past, one not marked by any involvement in the church, she's beginning to see hope in all things spiritual, and seeks out Matthew for answers - not knowing that Matthew himself is losing touch with his faith. Behncke, who caught my attention last year with her dynamic portrayal in the Playcrafters Barn Theatre's The Children's Hour, is portraying a more subdued character here, but one that's no less dynamic. (I've personally known people like Theresa, who rush into new ideas and embrace them out of hope, rather than thought.) With her undertones of desperation, Behncke perfectly captures Theresa's desire to latch onto anything spiritual as a means of becoming a good person.
Among 100 Saints' other characters, Theresa's daughter, Abby (played by the director's daughter, Kylie Jansen), wants to escape her mother's base lifestyle, not realizing she's on a similarly destructive path. Jansen has crafted her Abby into the quintessential rebellious teen through harsh, sarcastic inflections, and her body language reads as self-protective even as her offensive words command attention. (Had her mother not assured me otherwise, it would be hard to believe this isn't Kylie's true personality - her impressive performance is that convincing.)
While Jansen embodies teen rebellion, Rachael Lindhart - as Matthew's mother Colleen - embodies the older generation's unwavering sense of right and wrong. Yet Lindhart keeps a sense of pained uncertainty in her eyes, and the actress is remarkable when her words express her convictions and ideals while her face expresses a sad doubt - a longing to understand her son and his seeming denial of her values. And Matt Hamma's raw performance as Garrett, a young man fearful of falling out of favor with those around him, is less refined than the rest of the cast's, but appropriate for his character. Whereas Lindhart's Colleen speaks with external confidence, Hamma uses hesitancy in his line deliveries, as if his Garrett wants to open up to others, but always thinks carefully about what he's going to say for fear of revealing too much about himself.
Without resolving its characters' thematic tensions with definitive this-is-right and that-is-wrong convictions, New Ground's production of 100 Saints You Should Know is deeply personal without being at all preachy, and you may find your own spiritual journey reflected in at least one of the lives being explored on the Village Theatre stage.
For tickets and information, call (563)326-7529 or visit NewGroundTheatre.org.
Thom White covers entertainment news for WQAD Quad Cities News 8.