Haunting 'Eye of God' is nothing to blink at

April 21, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

"Eye of God" is so creepy it makes you want to sleep with the light on at night.

But it's not the murder mystery itself that gives you the willies; the murderer's identity is pretty much a given all along.

Instead of a whodunit, this play, receiving its East Coast premiere at the AXIS Theatre, is more of a psychological thriller.

Director Brian Klaas and his fine cast mine the psychological depths with a fervor that proves far more frightening in terms of suggestiveness than gore. What playwright Tim Blake Nelson is suggesting is that self-righteous religious faith can be more dangerous than no faith at all.

Set in a small Oklahoma town, the non-linear script introduces us to a young woman named Ainsley, who has answered a ] convict's magazine ad for a pen-pal. When the play begins, the convict, Jack, has just been released and is coming to town so they can meet.

To the astonishment of her best friend, Ainsley is not only unaware of Jack's crime, but she agrees to marry him without finding it out. And though Jack's fervent, new-found religion is difficult for her to take, he seems so tender and earnest and dedicated to "family values" that, for a while at least, Ainsley is happier than she's ever been.

For the audience, however, this romance has a sharp edge since it is presented in flashbacks, interspersed with an account of a grisly murder.

The play's narrator (and presumably the voice of the playwright) is the local sheriff, a man who starts out questioning his belief in God and ends up embittered and more doubt-ridden than ever.

Marty McDonough's solid, intelligent portrayal of the sheriff anchors the production and reinforces the philosophical underpinning that makes it more haunting than scary -- which is saying something since this murder is a real blood-curdler.

Mary Anne Perry portrays Ainsley as a young woman whose romantic foolhardiness can initially be excused by her loneliness. (Loneliness seems to be shared by most of the citizens of this economically depressed town.) However, Ainsley grows up quickly and painfully, and Perry's thoughtful performance grants her sympathy as well as understanding.

A similarly thoughtful approach is taken by Larry Malkus, who depicts Jack with the restrained conviction necessary to make the audience want to believe he's a changed man as much as he does.

One of the most chilling performances is that of Jim Page as a troubled teen-aged boy who witnesses the murder and is rendered nearly speechless by it. Despite having few lines, the boy is central to the drama; Page's portrayal of him is disturbing but credible.

The play's title refers not just to its religious theme, but also to the fact that Ainsley has a glass eye. That eye is one of the few secrets she kept from Jack during their correspondence, but she is hardly the only one willing to turn a blind eye toward this ex-con.

The justice system is also called into question here.

"God is always watching," Jack tells Ainsley before they get married. "Eye of God" doesn't dispute that He may be watching, but it does make you wonder if He's paying attention.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "Eye of God"

Where: AXIS Theatre, Meadow Mill, 3600 Clipper Mill Road

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (no performances tonight or May 5); through May 15

Tickets: $10 and $12

$ Call: (410) 243-5237

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