Losing Their Religion
Intiman's Documentary Drama About Seattle and God
A deep and paradoxical current of outsiderism runs beneath The Thin Place. Paradoxical because this solo play about religion professes an intimacy, both in subject matter (the narrative is built from 11 interviews conducted by KUOW reporter Marcie Sillman) and geography (the 11 interviewees are Seattle residents). The Thin Place is a homegrown play of the people, for the people, and by the people of Seattle regarding their innermost feelings about the cosmos. But it sometimes feels uncomfortable in its own skin, like an exercise in documentary playwriting instead of a fully realized piece of theater.
Inspired by a story Dan Savage told on This American Life about his Catholic upbringing and his mother's death, The Thin Place is Intiman's first production since Kate Whoriskey took over as artistic director. Skeptics might read the show as a PR move as well as an artistic one. Intiman has been the sometimes-squirmy focus of a long-standing debate about how local our local theaters should be. Over the years, critics have complained that Intiman hires too many out-of-town actors and directors, it produces too many out-of-town scripts (The Thin Place is only the third local script in the theater's history), and former artistic director Bart Sher spent too much time working on out-of-town projects. (Though those efforts earned him a string of Tony Awards and darkened Seattle's dot on the map of nationally significant theater towns.) When Whoriskey was hired from New York, reporters and bloggers were quick to question her commitment to Seattle, and Sher kicked up a little dust by responding in his going-away speech, "There is no such thing as local, and there is no such thing as national. There is only one thing: commitment."
So. A local play by a local playwright built from the words of local people is a tactically smart way to kick off the new regime.
But does it work? Sort of. The narrative, about a young, black Pentecostal man and his crisis of faith, sometimes feels uneven and lumpy, like a separating cream sauce. In a telephone interview after opening weekend, playwright Sonya Schneider said the great challenge of The Thin Place was blending the disparate interviews into a cohesive story. She turned an interview with an African-American atheist (that has some great observations about "Christian privilege" being as insidious as "white privilege") into a conversation with the protagonist's uncle; a teenage Muslim explaining why she wears a hijab becomes a chance encounter on the bus.
Director Andrew Russell and actor Gbenga Akinnagbe—best known for his work on The Wire—sometimes master the transitions using accents, body movement, and a zip-up hoodie that becomes a variety of accessories, from a jacket to a head scarf. And sometimes they don't.
But when Akinnagbe gets past the awkward bits and into the heart of an anecdote, he can be mesmerizing. His performance as a woman who survived the fatal attack on the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle in 2006—when a gunman named Naveed Haq broke into their downtown offices and began shooting—is both dire and comical. "God," the woman declares, "is on my shit list."
Another section, about a Cambodian-born POW in Vietnam, is a fantastic bit of storytelling: While living in solitary confinement, he decides to gently evangelize his jailers with smiles. The jailers ask why he's always grinning—and if they don't like his answer, "we beat you and it your fault." The Cambodian gives a tripartite explanation: First, he's happy to see the light when they open the door. Second, man was made in God's image, and when he sees his jailers, he sees his God. Third, he and his captors aren't enemies, just people who love their country and happen to be fighting on opposite sides. The jailers are confused by his answer but soon return his eyeglasses and ratchet up their kindness.
The story works beautifully as Akinnagbe tells it—I'll withhold judgment on his accent, not being an expert on Cambodian-born, Vietnamese-bred ESL speakers—but the play's protagonist relates it during a hospital stay after a seizurelike "episode." Is the Cambodian man magically beamed into the protagonist's head? Is he having a psychotic break? That story was supposed to have been heard over a radio, Schneider explained later. "But," she added, "I can understand how that part might be confusing."
The Thin Place has brought together some great local technical talent: movement coaching by choreographer Donald Byrd; a stark and elegant set of rocks, rectangular scrims, and a metal ramp that bisects the stage by Etta Lilienthal; and unusually prominent sound design (including some lovely cathedral-like echoes) by Matt Starritt.
But overall, The Thin Place feels like a few different projects jostling with each other—found art and original art, fiction and nonfiction, one narrative lasso trying to harness 12 different stories. When it's good, it's very, very good. But when it's bad, it's as chilly and confounding as a distant God.