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Theatre in Review: The Gospel According to Heather (Theatre 555)

Brittany Nicole Williams, Carson Stewart. Photo: Russ Rowland

Ah, adolescence: The social awkwardness. The hormones. The ability to work miracles. Wait -- what?

These are the dilemmas facing the heroine of The Gospel According to Heather, who cannot be termed your typical teen. For one thing, when thrown together with a high school heartthrob, her idea of a conversational opener is, "I started Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica but I'm finding his arguments too pedestrian for my taste." For good measure, she adds, "Do you like Kierkegaard?" I'll leave it to you to imagine his answer, but, clearly, Heather shouldn't be shopping for prom dresses.

Heather lives in Sharonville, the kind of Ohio town Conrad Birdie once passed through, and the locals have hopelessly (and accurately) branded her a book-loving nerd. Mrs. Parker, a teacher, thinks she should forgo high school altogether for college -- an idea that Heather strangely treats as outrageous, since she is seventeen and, most likely, headed there in a matter of months. But her real problems start when she finds a Roman coin in the mouth of her halibut dinner. (It's in Matthew; look it up.) Then she unwittingly converts a bottle of water into wine. (It's Manischewitz, but still.) And when her sort-of love interest -- the alienated, but dreamy, Zach -- sustains a mortal blow in a fight with a local tough, she brings him back to life with a simple laying on of hands. For an agnostic, this is not good news: Heather only wanted to be popular; now she is notorious, with a group of geeky kids applying to be her disciples.

The idea of a teenager as potential Supreme Being has possibilities but Paul Gordon's book is a mess, entangling Heather with various characters and plot threads, none of which lead anywhere interesting. We get a preview of the humor level in the first scene when Heather, bored and half-listening in class, volunteers, "He tripled the national debt, radically dropped the income tax rate on corporations, sold missiles to Iran, ignored AIDS, started the homeless crisis, and 138 members of his administration were either indicted, convicted, or both." Her teacher, nonplussed, asks, "What does that have to do with 17th-century pagans?" "Oh," Heather replies. "I thought you asked, 'Who was Ronald Reagan?"

It's a lazy, half-hearted gag and it sets the tone for much of the evening. The show wants to comment on intolerance of the religious, book-banning sort as well as the post-truth media environment facilitated by the likes of Fox News, but it gets caught up in all sorts of narrative cul-de-sacs and dead ends involving flights of angels, a revised Ten Commandments, manipulative radio shock jocks, and a melodramatic teen death right out of an old James Dean picture. (The latter is jarringly out of place in an otherwise jokey, lighthearted evening.) Every time you think something is about to happen, the show loses focus and drifts in another direction. As someone asks, "Heather Krebs -- Messiah or fraud? Teenage girl or Anti-Christ?" Trouble is, the answer doesn't really matter.

Brittany Nicole Williams, who plays Heather, does her best to make sense of the character's spiritual troubles and she does very nicely by a country-flavored ballad titled "The Weight of My Burden." She also partners well with Carson Stewart (a new face and a real talent), as Zach, on a soulful duet, "Don't Go Spreading Rumors." Jeremy Kushnier manfully juggles two unrewarding roles, as a local Tucker Carlson ("When will the woke mob stop forcing us to use electric stoves and other gay appliances?") and a street musician who is more than he seems. Another newcomer, Maya Lagerstam, gets most of the show's laughs as Heather's self-appointed, supremely self-involved, best friend. Badia Farha is likable as Mrs. Parker, the show's official voice of reason. Katey Sagal, of all people, turns up as a catatonic senior citizen, having almost nothing to do until the climax when she executes a startling transformation and pockets the eleven o'clock number. For the record, she has a pretty impressive belt.

The most impressive thing about The Gospel According to Heather is its production design. Set designers Christopher and Justin Swader frame the action in a portal, legs, and a backdrop of aluminum siding on which are painted a variety of small-town sights (water tower, church steeple). Jamie Roderick's colorful lighting does a lot to put over even the weaker numbers. Saawan Tiwari's imaginative, artfully cartooned costumes make good use of multiple layers and deliberately mismatched separates. (The angel costumes are particularly clever.) Sean Hagerty's sound design is admirably crisp and intelligible.

Still, The Gospel According to Heather, a comic treatment of young people searching for meaning, struggles to find a reason to exist. Gordon, who also wrote the score, is fluent in numerous pop styles but many of the songs feel underpowered, and some of them end surprisingly abruptly. It's not surprising that the director Rachel Klein, can't find much of a throughline in these scattered proceedings. By the time Heather and Zach make a potentially suicidal leap (Why? You're asking me?), there's nothing for the company to do but throw their hands in the air and bring on the hand-clapping gospel ballads. The show desperately wants to say something, but it is too bland and mixed-up to do so. --David Barbour

(23 June 2023)

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