A few months ago, I wrote a review of the Guthrie’s Mr. Burns, a post-electric play and that review led me to have a few conversations with some theater pals about why I liked it and they didn’t. It was instructive. Nearly universally, my pals said they didn’t emotionally connect with the characters in such a way that made them care, and the uniformity of their critiques was striking. I had approached it too analytically. Not that I was wrong. I was emphatically not. But that there was a quality I’d missed because I have a particular blind spot.

So I’ve been trying to be more aware of my emotional self as I sit myself down in theater seats these days, if only because I was legitimately surprised at how there was an entire dimension to a play that I’d missed. Also, it just sort of sounds like a healthy thing to do: Get emotionally integrated! Embrace the holistic self! Heal those wounds! And so on.

Except that I really like going to thinky shows and thinking about thinky shows in a thinky way.

Gremlin Theatre’s production of H2O was different, and kind of what I wanted when I needed it. It is a super thinky piece. Written by Jane Martin, H2O pits a wildly rich Hollywood man-actor who swears and drinks a lot against a wildly poor New York woman-actor who has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, her Lord and Savior. The two of them bicker a lot about sin as they get ready to perform Hamlet on Broadway. The script is witty and sharp; it integrates its direct and indirect bits of Shakespeare nicely; and it’s even-handed when it compares the relative merits of two worldviews that get Americans all riled up.

But I didn’t have it in me to get involved with these characters. No, sorry, that’s wrong. This is better: I didn’t have it in me to concern myself too much with their ongoing theological debate.

When you spend as much time buried in social science books as I do, sometimes you just want to say, “You believe in the stuff that you believe in mainly because someone taught it to you, and humans are hardwired to keep doing the things that we’ve already done before, even when it’s super dumb or self-destructive, because the repetition conserves resources or something advantageous from an evolutionary standpoint like that, I don’t know, you don’t have to justify yourself on my account” and walk off.

And yet...

I liked this show a lot. I cared about the characters.

Actor dynamos converting energy

Now, I didn’t like the characters or particularly identify with either—which is how most audience members seem to come to care about characters. We see ourselves (or what we aspire to be) in them, so we root for them. This didn’t apply to me here. If I was casually chatting with these characters, I would extirpate myself from the situation and meticulously avoid them for the remainder of my days or until I forgot who they were, whichever came first.

But Peter Christian Hansen as Jake and Ashley Rose Montondo as Deborah won me over. They extract every last bit of humanity out of the script and give their characters a breadth and depth that feels like their contribution, not the playwright’s. And Montondo and Hansen play very well together. There are tough, raw moments in this show from the start, and the two of them act as a dynamo that’s able to convert all the script’s shocking, disquieting energy into a real, honest-to-goodness relationship propels the whole story forward.

Jake is sort of a late-series Don Draper crossed with what I imagine Andrew Garfield will be like in 2021: a man who lives so hard it has ceased to be charming and who earned a considerable fortune by being the guy whose body supplies the point the audience’s eyes focus on in lucrative, computer-generated superhero flicks. Montondo as Deborah is a sensible, self-assured and tenacious young woman from the Upland South whose New York acting career is her way of drawing people closer to Christ.

Now, if you think these characters could be broader than the Mississippi Delta after a week of rain (or some other appropriately Dixie-ish metaphor), you are one-hundred-percent correct, my friend. H2O could effortlessly be a proxy war between MSNBC and Fox News. But Gremlin does not do that and, while there is some restraint in the script, the lightest hand and most humanizing, revealing shades are filled in by the performances and by Ellen Fenster’s direction.

Hansen has both the natural charm and the body to plausibly play a man who earned DreamWorks Studios hundreds of millions of dollars. And Montondo brings an excellent steeliness to Deborah that many people of deep faith have but that few depictions of people of deep faith incorporate.

Dark yet graceful and full of light

Indeed, though the story is quite dark on the whole, the production itself is practically graceful—Fenster has found a appealing place between heavy, wordy thoughts and a delicate, not-quite-ethereal stagecraft. Carl Schoenborn (set and lights) and Katharine Horowitz (sound) use very little, and nothing used is out of place.

In the end, it is a rewarding show—and maybe I found it rewarding for the wrong reasons. H2O seems to get a lot of praise for being all thinky and a microcosm of the culture war that rages in America and so on. So maybe this time I should be more analytical. But I think Gremlin Theatre found something better than that in the story.

Stray observations

  • I tried super hard to write this without spoilers. Just... it’s tragic and awful and wonderful in its tragic awfulness. Pitiable! That’s it. Pitiable. The “evoking compassion” kind, not the “evoking contempt” kind.
  •  “They make Ophelia noises.” Love it, even out of context. Want it on a T-shirt, even out of context.
  • Dawnwalker? Jake’s superhero was Dawnwalker? Actually, that’s pretty hysterical.
  • As in most debates in America (and every other English-speaking country) between white people who feel faithlessness is hopelessly corrupting our national soul versus white people who feel the unfettered free market is hopelessly hollowing out our national soul, no one ever brings up simply voting for democratic socialists (or social democrats) to bring some dignity back to the joint. America has no problems that the Danish parliament couldn’t basically solve in a week. I’m serious. Not. A. Single. One.
  • Peter! Ashley! We applauded for so long and wanted you to come back for another bow! You should come back for another bow when there’s that much clapping!