McDonald paints 'Picture' of a relationship with God

Playwright's 'An Almost Holy Picture' on view at Rep Stage

February 11, 2011|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

From time to time, playwright Heather McDonald lets loose her fury at the supreme being. It is, she says, a form of prayer.

"I think of God as someone I can abuse, and who abuses me back," says McDonald, 51, who until recently lived in Catonsville."It's a relationship, though not always a warm one. But I'm giving him my full attention."

Plays dealing with crises of religious faith are staged about as often on Broadway as burlesque acts are performed in churches.

But McDonald's spiritual quest has consumed her since she was a teenager, and it spills over into the seven plays and one libretto that have been performed in some of the nation's most prestigious theaters, including Center Stage in Baltimore, the La Jolla Playhouse near San Diego and Houston's Grand Opera.

"The question of whether there is a God presence, is anyone listening, winds its way through most of my plays," she says.

Actor Kevin Bacon made his return to Broadway in 2002 with McDonald's "An Almost Holy Picture," after his wife, Kyra Sedgwick, burst into tears at the end of a staged reading and told her husband: "This is beautiful. You have to do it."

A revival of "Holy Picture" is running through Feb. 20 at Rep Stage in Howard County.

As the play opens, Samuel Gentle, a former Episcopal priest and church groundskeeper, relates three events that have shaped his view of his deity:

As a child, Samuel heard God's voice whispering, "Follow me."

The adult Samuel's faith is shaken by a school bus accident that kills nine children. Years later, Samuel despairs when his daughter is born with a rare disease that causes her whole body to be covered with fine, golden hair.

"A lot of people have an emotional response to this play," says Michael Stebbins, Rep Stage's artistic director, who plays Gentle in the one-actor show.

"The events that my character experiences are extreme, but many people in the audience have experienced great pain. Like Samuel, they're examining the past and wondering about the future."

It's easy to understand why an actor of Bacon's caliber would be drawn to McDonald's work. Her prose is straightforward and lyrical. There's little fuss and less waste, but she evokes images that draws the audience in.

Given McDonald's otherworldly preoccupations and academic credentials — she teaches full time at George Mason University and lives a short walk from campus — it's surprising to discover that she and her sister have applied to compete on the reality television show "The Amazing Race."

Heather and Heidi McDonald proceed to the second round in the audition process on Feb. 24; their application video is posted at http://www.youtube.com/user/ResourcesForTeachers.

"This is lunacy," Heather McDonald says. "My little sister has lived out of the country for the past 20 years, teaching in China, Indonesia and the Middle East, so she hasn't been around American pop culture.

"After she moved back to this country last fall, she called me up and said, 'Is reality television a big deal here? I'm totally obsessed with these shows.'

"So now I need to get in shape."

Reality shows are big on self-affirmation, and the playwright's home is plastered with her own version of inspirational messages.

"There are quotes all over her study," says the choreographer Susan Shields, who is working with McDonald on a mixed-media piece titled "Stay." "Some are on plaques and some are on slips of paper taped to the walls. Everywhere you look, there's something uplifting to read. It's clear she finds great support in words."

One of McDonald's first skirmishes with the Almighty occurred when she was a teen growing up on Canadian military bases.

When she was 13, her parents and sister made a life-changing spiritual discovery. Young Heather was unable to take the same leap of faith, and that caused friction in the family.

"My parents went through a pretty profound conversion," McDonald says. "Something happened to them that didn't happen to me. It just didn't click for me. It was a pretty difficult time."

Young Heather also wondered how a benevolent God could inflict a rare form of cancer on her little sister. Heidi recovered, but as a result, one arm is much shorter than the other.

Several years later, Heather herself was stricken with a debilitating immune system disorder. She fell ill after completing her bachelor's degree at Florida State University in Tallahassee in 1981, and after gaining admittance to a graduate fiction program at New York University.

"I had to go home and spend a whole year in bed," she says. "All I could do was read and write, and for some crazy reason, I started writing plays. I realized I could never know what motivates people. All I could do is write down what they say and how they behave."

When she was in her 30s, the young playwright had a string of successes. Her plays won awards and were produced at important theaters. She also was the mother of two little girls, having married a journalist.

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