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Benediction

Mike Hartman as Dad Lewis
Mike Hartman as Dad Lewis
Photo: Jennifer M. Koskinen
Life on the high plains of Colorado has never been easy—the elements and the solitude have gotten the best of many—yet it is the often inhospitable clime that drives folks together for survival.

The late novelist Kent Haruf, a Colorado native, was a master at conveying the sense of place that permeates this rolling, arid prairie, a good part of a day's drive east of Denver and the Rocky Mountains. Though sparsely populated, it is a land rich in heart and full of colorful characters.

Benediction is the third play in a trilogy based on Haruf's novels that have been commissioned, adapted (Eric Schmiedl) and produced by the Denver Center Theatre Company. The prior two—Plainsong and Eventide—are sequential, while Benediction, set in the same imaginary town of Holt, Colorado, exists independently of its predecessors, despite some minor overlapping of characters.

Joyce Cohen as Mary Lewis and Mike Hartman as Dad Lewis
Joyce Cohen as Mary Lewis
and Mike Hartman as Dad Lewis
Photo: Jennifer M. Koskinen
Dad Lewis (Mike Hartman) is the proprietor of the local hardware store. The store has been his life's work, while he and his wife Mary (Joyce Cohen) raised two kids, Lorraine (Kathleen McCall) and Frank (Jonathan Crombie). Dad has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. It's time for him to set things right in this world, before moving on to the next.

Hartman, who appeared in the world premieres of the two previous Eric Schmiedl adaptations of Haruf's novels, is masterful at balancing the gruff exterior of a hard scrabble lifer with an increasingly contemplative and compassionate interior life, as Dad's days count down. Despite the toll that living with Dad has taken, particularly with his rejection of their gay son, Cohen's Mary is luminescent, exuding the patience of a wizened elder and a deep current of love for the man with whom she has spent her entire adult life. The death scene at the end, between Hartman, Cohen, and McCall is one of the most natural passings you will ever see on stage.

Kathleen McCall as Lorraine Lewis and Jonathan Crombie as Richard
Kathleen McCall as Lorraine Lewis
and Jonathan Crombie as Richard
Photo: Jennifer M. Koskinen
In Haruf's work, much is made of the contrast between life in Holt and the big city of Denver and beyond. To Haruf, this is not just a matter of simple, hardworking rural folk versus jaded, corrupt urban values, but also the prejudices of small town minds versus big-city, melting-pot mind-sets. When Lorraine returns home to help take care of Dad, McCall deftly handles her quandry of giving up a hollow, honky tonk lifestyle for the possibility of something more meaningful and connected.

After a beautiful, splashy scene, where Lorraine, Willa Johnson (Billie McBride), her daugher Alene (Nance Williamson) picnic, nap in the sun, and then frolic in the stock tank with Alice (Zoe Delaney Stahlhut), an 8-year old whom they have taken under their wing after she lost her mother, we see a marked shift in Lorraine—a rebirth of sorts—as her tristesse dissapates and some glimer of joy re-enters her life.

(Left to right) Billie McBride as Willa Johnson, Nance Williamson as Alene Johnson, Kathleen McCall as Lorraine Lewis, and Leslie O'Carroll as Berta May
(L to R) Billie McBride as Willa Johnson,
Nance Williamson as Alene Johnson,
Kathleen McCall as Lorraine Lewis,
and Leslie O'Carroll as Berta May
Photo: Jennifer M. Koskinen
Haruf reveals the threads of local character in short, episodic scenes, many of which are carried over by Schmiedl into this play. Willa and Alene's altruism—taking Alice out for lunch, buying her clothes and a bicycle—eventually lead to a gift for Alice from Dad. McBride and Williamson bring an elegant simplicity to Willa and Arlene's interactions; there are no motives other than empathy and compassion. Even when dealing with Alice's mentally challenged grandmother, Berta May (a heartfelt performance by Leslie O'Carroll), there are no judgments. Nice work by Stahlhut, holding her own with these pros.

(Left to right) James Newcomb as Rudy and Lawrence Hecht as Bob
(L to R) James Newcomb as Rudy
and Lawrence Hecht as Bob
Photo: Jennifer M. Koskinen
During the trip to the hardware store to buy the bicycle, we meet Rudy (James Newcomb) and Bob (Lawrence Hecht), the two assistant managers whom Dad took under his wing years ago and made the most of their limited capacities. Newcomb and Hecht provide sublime comedy by underplaying their motivations and turf issues. When Dad tells them that Lorraine will take over managing the store, the look shared between them conveys more than words could ever say.

Unlike the previous two stories, in Benediction Haruf ventures into political and religious territory via Rev. Rob Lyle (Ed F. Martin), the pastor of Holt Community Church. Lyle has been reassigned here, due to a sermon he gave in Denver supporting a gay preacher who came out. Lyle's wife, Beverly (Nancy Lemanager) and son, John Wesley (Nick Lamedica), are critical of Rev. Lyle's outspokeness, and rebel in turn.

Ed F. Martin as Reverend Rob Lyle and Nancy Lemenager as Beverly Lyle
Ed F. Martin as Reverend Rob Lyle
and Nancy Lemenager as Beverly Lyle
Photo: Jennifer M. Koskinen
Yet, for Haruf, Rev. Lyle is a means to explore the hypocrisy of so-called Christians. Not long after 9-11, Rev. Lyle asks his Holt congregation how Jesus would have responded to the attacks. Would he have made war on his enemies, whoever they are? The locals call Rev. Lyle a terrorist and exit the church.

Politics aside, Martin lets Rev. Lyle's wry humor shine through his facial expressions when a young couple—Ronald Dean Walker (Benjamin Bonenfant), a ranch hand, and Laurie Wheeler (Adrian Egolf), a cafe manager, his fiancé—whose anticipation of nuptial consummation is palpable, ask him to marry them right then and there.

Nick Lamedica as John Wesley Lyle and Amelia Marie Corrada as Genevieve Larson
Nick Lamedica as John Wesley Lyle and
Amelia Marie Corrada as Genevieve Larson
Photo: Jennifer M. Koskinen
Regardless, Rev. Lyle's family will have none of his righteousness. Lemanager has the unenviable task of trying to paint Beverly's take on her husband's views as a means for compensating for her wanderlust, and succeeds in getting us to question the dynamics of their relationship, despite our support for the Rev.'s point-of-view, which brings to mind George Bernard Shaw's comment, "Christianity would be a good thing if anyone ever practiced it."

Lamedica digs deep to lay bare John Wesley's angst over moving to a new school, the pain of which is dampened by his intimate relationship with Genevieve Larson (Amelia Marie Corrada). Corrada is riveting as the goth-style teenage siren.

Another superb comedic element is the three waitresses, all played by Tracy Shaffer to hilarious effect, with big hair, accentuated features, vintage outfits, and sashays to match the archetypal profiles.

Joyce Cohen as Mary Lewis and Mike Hartman as Dad Lewis
Joyce Cohen as Mary Lewis
and Mike Hartman as Dad Lewis
Photo: Jennifer M. Koskinen
Given that the story begins with Dad's cancer diagnosis, the entire piece serves as a Benediction to him, to the lifestyle of everyone connected with Holt, and to a vanishing breed of Coloradoans. As Haruf's story unfolds in terse, but elegant language and simple settings, it also serves as a moving tribute to the author himself, who passed away on November 30, 2014. We hope that his passing was as natural as the parting scene he depicts between Dad, Mary, and Lorraine.

Denver Center Theatre Company's world premiere of Eric Schmiedl's Benediction, based on the novel by Kent Haruf, directed by DCTC artistic director Kent Thompson, runs through March 1st. For tickets: 303-893-4100 or denvercenter.org.

Bob Bows

 

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