Playhouse season opens with ‘Owen Meany’

Based on John Irving's 1989 novel 'A Prayer for Owen Meany,' the play depicts a friendship between two boys that profoundly changed the story's narrator, making him a believer when he wasn't one before.

click to enlarge Jeremy Webb (left) and Sean Mellott - Photo: Mikki Schaffner
Photo: Mikki Schaffner
Jeremy Webb (left) and Sean Mellott

John Irving is a significant American novelist. He first found recognition with The World According to Garp (1978) and continued with a string of comic but philosophical novels featuring quirky characters, coincidences and twists of fate that have charmed readers. His reputation culminated with 1989’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. Cincinnati Playhouse Artistic Director Blake Robison says Garp was his first experience with Irving, both the novel and the film starring Robin Williams. He heard Irving read from The Cider House Rules in a college chapel. “But it was Owen Meany that turned me — and millions of others — into a true Irving fan,” he says.

A decade ago, Robison’s admiration for the novel led him to direct a stage adaptation of Owen Meany by Simon Bent at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Md., where he was artistic director before coming to Cincinnati five years ago. “Growing up in Vermont, I felt a special kinship with Irving’s world and the oddball characters that populate his New England townships, Robison says. But Owen Meany transcends all of that. It taps into our collective doubt, our search for purpose and faith, our estrangement from the society around us and the profound value of friendship.”

His production was a hit in Maryland, and Robison decided to use it to launch the Playhouse’s 57th year of production. 

In the mid-1980s, the novel’s narrator John Wheelwright traces his friendship with Owen from 1953, when they’re 9 years old, to the mid-1960s. “The main thrust of their relationship,” Robison says, “is that John is riddled with doubt — doubt about religion, doubt about friendship, about the purpose of life. Owen on the other hand is convinced, because of a series of visions he’s had, that he is personally an instrument of God. John is looking back on his life and his relationship with Owen and how that has profoundly changed him and made him a believer, when he wasn’t one before.”

In print, Owen Meany fills more than 600 pages. So how has Irving’s picaresque tale become a play that can be staged in one evening? The challenge of adaptation, Robison says, is “to boil down the thick narrative and the huge cast of characters to its essence — a good adaptation is not simply a transcription of the dialogue of the novel.” 

It must honor the original material, but a playwright helps add focus. 

“(Bent’s adaptation) is all about Owen’s faith journey and the friendship between John and Owen,” Robison continues. “His play streamlines our attention in helpful ways. It’s about John’s doubt, Owen’s faith and the trajectory of their relationship. Simon Bent makes sure we never forget that. Anything that doesn’t feed that has been left by the wayside. That said, this is an epic production — our cast of 16 actors plays nearly 30 characters.”

But Robison adds that audiences don’t need to know the novel. 

“That’s one of the requirements of any stage adaptation,” he says. “We have to make sure it resonates with the novel’s fans but, more than that, the story has to stand on its own.”

Nevertheless, the play goes beyond simple entertainment, according to Robison. “It’s important for the Playhouse to ask, ‘What does this play say about what’s going on in the world right now?’ It’s no secret that we’re living in a society that feels polarized in its civic discussion about politics, race and faith — all of those big issues. 

“Owen has a kind of true faith that’s outside the confines of any particular religion. It’s a great time to look back at this wonderful, iconic character in American literature and figure out what he says to us right now.” 

Irving’s captivating narrative does require some amazing theater magic. “He has these dreams where he’s flying, and it has something to do with his destiny and purpose,” Robison says. The Playhouse has hired a Louisville-based flying company, ZFX, to provide this technology for theaters. “It’s going to blow people’s minds to see Owen and some other characters float above the Marx Theatre stage.”

A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, opens Thursday and continues through Oct. 1. More info: cincyplay.com.

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