One of life’s lessons is that things don’t always end well for those who talk with angels.
Evidence can be found in the beheading of John the Baptist, the burning of Jeanne d’Arc, and the fate of the three residents of Dove Creek, Colorado, who find themselves in the middle of a miracle in Eric Coble’s “These Mortal Hosts.”
This play is set in motion by a car crash that takes the lives of several local teenage boys. While the small town mourns their loss, a self-absorbed high school senior named Meaghan hears voices telling her to prepare the world for a day of reckoning. Phyllis, a lonely and anal-retentive bank manager, finds herself pregnant without the aid of intercourse. And Earl, an amiable grocery store butcher, discovers that his kind heart is growing exponentially to the point of bursting.
As did the messengers of God before them, these three strangers start questioning their sanity as their bizarre and socially isolating changes begin to turn their neighbors against them. But as their direct-address monologues at the start of this play turn into dialogue, as their dialogue becomes identical and overlapping discourse, and as their heartbeats become mysteriously synchronized, the meaning behind Meaghan, Phillis and Earl’s now-linked lives takes on divine magnitude and great urgency.
The one-act “These Mortal Hosts” is a psalm, of sorts, but with a sense of humor. Its poignancy and its punchlines emerge from Coble’s poetic and occasionally profane prose, which has no trouble at all holding our attention for 90 minutes. The play received its world premiere in the 2017 Cleveland Play House New Ground Festival, an annual event that champions the intriguing work of emerging artists, and it is currently getting a proper if somewhat earth-bound turn at none too fragile theatre.
This staging is appropriately minimalistic, which gives due focus to Coble’s words and establishes the hyper-surreal space in which his characters exist. There’s no scenery and only Phyllis’s desk, Earl’s butcher-block table, and a platform from which Meaghan can proselytize exist on the otherwise empty stage. Marcus Dana’s stark lighting nicely detaches one character’s realm from the others and helps establish a world in which the mystical is possible.
What is particularly charming about this play is that it requires a leap of faith on the part of the audience to believe in the presence of angels in the absence of evidence. After all, we can’t see Earl’s expanding heart, Phyllis’ growing fetus or Meaghan’s evolving mind. We have only their testimony to guide us.
And so it is up to the actors to do the heavy lifting in establishing the state of normalcy in their characters’ lives and then effectively communicate the new normal. A sense of authenticity and accessibility is required. Only David Vegh as Earl delivers the goods here. Mary Werntz and Madison Ellis are always interesting in what they do as Phyllis and Meaghan, respectively, but their characters never seem as real as Vegh’s Earl and so their transformation is never convincing and their journey becomes less interesting.
Also, the audience’s application of blind faith is undermined by director Robert Ellis’ decision to allow us to hear the angels’ echoed voices, courtesy of sound designer Brian Kenneth Armour, and see their silhouetted form against a back scrim. Showing the celestial was no doubt an effort to bolster the play’s emotional impact with theatricality – and a few other creative choices follow suit – but quite the opposite resulted.
Still, this production of “These Mortal Hosts” succeeds where it needs to most. It is a very entertaining evening of theater and nicely showcases all that is smart and engrossing in Coble’s work.