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Wednesday, 06 March 2013 03:08

Living on Hope and a Prayer -- 'Lilies of the Field' at Kirkwood Theater Guild

Written by Tina Farmer
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The Details

At its center, the “Lilies of the Field,” takes a long, reflective look at the needs and motivations that compel people to work together to achieve common good. The premise – that a black Southern Baptist man would help a group of immigrant Catholic nuns build a chapel outside a Mexican town in the American dessert – is ripe for political commentary and potential protest in contemporary America.

In contrast to today's media driven divisiveness, however, the script, the Kirkwood Theater Guild's production and the performances resonate with positivity and the triumph of the human spirit.

Set in the southwest, during the post World War II era, the layers of this simple and direct story -- nuns needing help to repair their homestead and build a chapel and boys' school -- are slowly peeled back to reveal the transformational power of mutual need and genuine acceptance.

Recent veteran, Homer Smith, is a likeable man with a strong sense of self and an even greater desire for self-determination. Reginald Pierre brings Homer's character to life with confident certainty in a strong, steady performance, assuring the audience that everything would turn out okay.

Homer is a hard-working man, not quick to judge others but committed to living life on his own terms, nonetheless. He's also kind, handy and fomd of singing; and Pierre does a nice job of keeping Homer likeable, while allowing him to demand respect from those who may judge him by his skin color.

Homer meets his match in Mother Maria Marte, a strong, independent woman in her own right, played with a gentle stubbornness by Kathy Flood Figas.

Mother Marte has recently immigrated to America with a group of young nuns to build a chapel and school for wayward Latin boys. The land the order inherited is practically barren, and simply building the chapel a near-impossible task, but Mother Marte will not easily give up. Figas reveals the Mother's steel core and persistence, as well as her deep faith and unexpected affection. Her facial expressions, while somewhat over-exaggerated, add humor and subtext to the performance.

The nuns in the good mother's flock provide some of the most enjoyable moments of the play. The voices of Sara Rae Womack, Shannon Magee, Ann Hier and Kathryn Weber combine beautifully in several moving musical pieces, creating moments of pure reverence. Those moments were nicely contrasted by the exuberance of their English lessons with Homer, playfully mimicking his southern drawl or dancing with abandon. Together, the women conveyed a true sense of sisterhood that lit up the stage.

The supporting men also turned in solid performances. Their characters helped to reflect both the skepticism present in post-war, pre-civil rights America, and to guide us through the play. In particular, Mark Abel's cheerful, insightful Father Gomez provided narration revealing the shared hopes and values that enabled these people to work together towards a common goal. Appearing as the diner proprietor and wealthy white owner of a lumberyard, Ray Shea and Robert Doyle, respectively, did a nice job of rounding out the ensemble. My only quibble with the casting would be to note that the St. Louis theater community still has far to go before it will be truly diverse.

I was struck by the deft manner with which the script handled racism, segregation and immigration, however. The ideas were neither ignored nor emphasized, they just were. Some of the most successful moments occurred in the transitions bridging scenes. It was here that the characters took time to slow down, reflect and react most genuinely, and I wish this thoughtful approach was more present throughout the performance. As a whole, however, Steve Callahan's direction worked well and was nicely complemented by the quick set changes, effective lighting and incidental sound cues.

Thankfully, this play will not make you wish for a different time. Instead, it effectively and joyfully points out that, even in uncertain times, tolerance, civility and a willingness to help others can bridge many differences.

"Lilies of the Field" runs through March 10th at the Robert G. Reim Theater. For additional information, or to make your reservation, please call 314-821-9956 or visit www.ktg-onstage.org.

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