Stage

Faithful
An Almost Holy Picture. By Heather McDonald. Directed by Sharon Ott. Starring J. Michael Flynn. At the Berkeley Repertory Theater, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley, through May 9. Call (510) 845-4700.

There is something gutsy and resolutely untrendy about a young woman writing a two-hour, one-man play about God, fatherhood, and gardening. But as Heather McDonald, the bespectacled, monkishly pretty playwright, has shown in her short but fertile career, trends can't compete with simple beauty. Like her first play, the heart-searing and funny Dream of a Common Language, which dealt with the psychic plight of female artists, An Almost Holy Picture exhibits the same uncommon ability to wind a very personal tale around philosophical conundrums.

"There are three experiences that have shaped my experience of God," begins Samuel Gentle, the former minister and church groundskeeper. The narrative tapestry that follows is an evocative, delicate, at times riveting meditation on the relationship between faith and personal experience. Gentle's first encounter with God occurs as a child on a cranberry bog, when he hears a voice whispering, "Follow me"; the second when his youth-group bus crashes, killing nine children; the third when his daughter is born with an endocrine condition, leaving her covered with fine silky hair.

Though Gentle obviously adores the furry Ariel, he spends much of the play sighing over her imperfection, questioning God, and shuddering at the cruel remarks of his daughter's classmates. After the umpteenth sigh, one begins to feel sorry for the little girl -- not because of her hairy skin but because she has a father brooding in the garden 24 hours a day (he sleepwalks). Just as the character who weeps profusely often leaves no room for the audience's tears, so too the character who feels sorry for himself stifles commiseration. Luckily, Samuel Gentle's misplaced self-pity takes center stage in the beautifully rendered climax. Gentle's violent outburst and subsequent realization that it is his own shame that hurts his daughter the most redeems much of the hand-wringing of the first half of the play.

J. Michael Flynn's performance as the mild-mannered Gentle never missteps but also never fully transcends mere technical prowess. Each moment feels premeditated, finely crafted, and too careful. Loy Arcenas' set of garden tools, dirt yard, and angled towering stone walls resonates with Stephen LeGrand's soundscape of church bells, melodic snatches, and breathing to create a world that is at once cosmic and intimate. Sharon Ott's elegant direction (in her last production as Berkeley Rep artistic director) unearths the many themes submerged in the play but too often underscores McDonald's slips into gooey sentimentality and Protestant ponderousness. Gentle's rendition of "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" -- all while miming rocking a baby in his arms -- goes on until the tender moment turns saccharine.

Gentle's grand realization is that his spiritual life springs from his propensity for self-reflection: "I think about everything. It's my thoughts that give me my real comfort," he says. This hints that McDonald believes his tireless self-involvement is a saving grace rather than a fatal flaw. Despite her crystalline prose and vivid symbols, her portrayal of this passive, angst-ridden man trembles with equivocation. The brazen, funny characters that Gentle depicts in his stories -- Ariel; his wife, Muriel; and his neighbor Inez -- make one yearn for McDonald and Gentle to throw open the garden gates, and let in action, humor, and the most unholy mess of the world.

-- Carol Lloyd

Clubland
The Sweetest Hangover (and other stds). By Ricardo Bracho. Directed by Roberto Varea. Starring Vidal M. Perez, Art Desuyo, Alan S. Quismorio, Gabriel Morales, Saun-Toy Latifa Trotter, B. Chico Purdiman, and Al Lujan. At the Brava Theater Center, 2789 24th St., through April 27. Call 647-2822.

For the anomie-stricken types who populate writer Ricardo Bracho and director Roberto Varea's The Sweetest Hangover (and other stds), life's ups and downs are reduced to slipping through a whole lotta cracks: Relationships fracture, voices fail, cocaine is inhaled, and jokes are told as they plummet through the everyday fissures of a queer world. Suavecito Octavio (Vidal M. Perez) runs Club Azlantis -- the place his fellow lumpen of color call "home." While scoping the selection and counting the green, Octavio feels conflicted. He wants to be in love -- to fill the "glory hole in his heart" -- but has serious intimacy hang-ups. When he romances tag artist-cum-bouncer Samson (Art Desuyo), he tries to avoid everything but the physical throb, barking "Pelamela." Outlawed in a homophobic, racist culture, Octavio struggles to unlearn his impulses to hide and to deny himself love and affection.

While Octavio stews, others float in and out of the club. Natasha Kinky (B. Chico Purdiman) crosses divides sexual and temporal. She pops estrogen, lip-syncs to Diana Ross, and recovers African histories. Fellow voguish talent-show artist Plum (Saun-Toy L. Trotter) carves out a space in between the beats and tunes in to the African souls lost in the middle passage, to the "salt water deep inside the Atlantic of my body." Other club regulars include Puerto Rican "Miss Thing 1" (Gabriel Morales) and Filipino "Miss Thing 2" (Alan S. Quismorio), who offer Dr. Seuss-inspired sophomoric rhymes on what it means to grow up queer in macho-based Latino cultures.

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