New York’s summer theater scene usually boasts lighter, feel-good fare, especially during Pride Month, when it throws on a rainbow-hued feather boa and kicks up its heels. Out gay playwright Samuel D. Hunter (“The Whale,” “A Bright New Boise”) is oblivious to this tradition. And that’s fine by me.
His latest work, “The Healing,” presented by Theater Breaking Through Barriers, is an exquisitely poignant, largely joyless affair. Under the acutely sensitive direction of Stella Powell-Jones, an air of mordant desperation hangs heavy over a group of friends reuniting to bury one of their own. Their sorrow feels all too real, intensified by protracted, awkward silences.
The action is set in the dead of winter at the dour, cramped southeastern Idaho abode of Zoe, who passed away under woeful circumstances that become painfully clear as the play progresses. The living room, designed with obsessive, hoarder-esque detail by Jason Simms, is cluttered with cutesy figurines and gewgaws — clowns, frogs, Mickey Mouse, and the like — most of them ordered from the Home Shopping Network.
“Sometimes I just get lonely, and… I just like knowing that even when I’m gone they’ll still be around,” Zoe says, in one of several flashbacks offering clues to her plight.
The friends have traveled from afar to attend the funeral. Since Zoe had no close family, it’s up to them to pack up the house and dispose of its contents. Hardly anyone else came to the funeral.
And yet, this is no ordinary social circle. Some 25 years ago, the gang bonded at a nearby Christian sleep-away summer camp geared toward kids with disabilities. Accordingly, several roles are played by actors with disabilities, which adds a fascinating dimension to the work, alternately uneasy and inspiring.
Not that the word “disability” is appropriate for this highly accomplished ensemble. Shannon DeVido is outstanding as Sharon, the whip-smart, successful executive who happens to be wheelchair-bound.
Sharon, now an atheist, is livid that poor Zoe, a devout Christian Scientist who relied on prayers instead of pills to cure her frequent bouts of illness, learned her faith from the head counselor at the camp. Sharon bitterly recalls the counselor telling the young campers, “If we prayed hard enough, Jesus would heal our broken little bodies.”
Pamela Sabaugh portrays Zoe with a light touch. To be sure, Zoe is despondent and obsessed with earning God’s love, but Sabaugh refuses to play her as a crazed zealot, and when Zoe has a crisis of faith, it feels completely believable.
“I’m asking for God and I’m not getting anything,” she says. “I’m worried that God is not in my life anymore.”
David Harrell is affecting as Donald, a gay man who could really use a boyfriend. He proves that the absence of a forearm in no way impedes his progress wrapping up figurines in newspaper.
The only couple is Bonnie (Jamie Petrone, who uses a wheelchair) and Greg (John McGinty, who is deaf), who did not know Zoe or attend the camp. This is their first trip together and their new relationship is sorely tested.
Rounding out the bunch is Laura (Mary Theresa Archbold), a gloomy associate professor of Baltic studies at the University of Montana.
This supremely sad visit uncovers wounds that have been festering for years and draws out a number of fraught themes surrounding loss, mortality, and the power of faith, friendship, and shared memories.
Each character is in need of healing in some way. They casually self-medicate using antidepressants, Ativan, Xanax, and, in Zoe’s case, shopping and God (sometimes she has difficulty separating the two).
Not surprisingly, the subtext of “The Healing” is that people with disabilities are as capable as anyone — skilled at packing up a house, holding down jobs, and loving relationships.
My only quibble is that the climactic scene, where the group comes face-to-face with a longtime nemesis, is not as powerful or satisfying as it could be.
Throughout the entire play, a television blares the Home Shopping channel, with a disembodied, otherworldly voice repeatedly offering the promise of a better life in three easy payments of $19.99 plus shipping. Nobody bothers to change the channel, claiming it’s because they can’t find the remote. When it’s finally found, they leave the strangely comforting channel on anyway.
THE HEALING | Theater Breaking Through Barriers | Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St. | Through Jul. 16: Tue.-Wed. at 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 3 p.m. | $55 at telecharge.com or 90 mins., with no intermission