Fans of the pint-sized boy with the memorable voice IN ALL CAPS will undoubtedly fall in love with Book-It Theatre’s Owen Meany's Christmas Pageant, based on the 1989 novel A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. And even if you’re not familiar with the story, Book-It’s theatrical production is a charming, hilarious take on the Christmas pageant tradition, made even funnier if you or your family have ever partaken in a church pageant before.
But before you head straight out of church and into the theater, know that Book-It recommends the show for children ages 12 and up, mainly due to language and a bit of sexual innuendo. Pray tell, you ask? Now is the time to close your eyes (or the lid on your laptop) because I’m just going to give it to you straight up (pun intended as most of the innuendo is erection-related). There are just two issues to consider. The first is that the first line of the play – and the last – is: “Put me down, you assholes!” So that’s one.
The second is that there are some hard-hitting erection jokes. Owen Meany and his fellow cast members play adolescent roles, so the ups and downs pretty much fall within the range of age-appropriate antics. Also, because the story is set within the confines of the 1950s (and most scenes take place at a church), the wisecracks come off as quirky rather than sexy (the church Rector repeatedly referring to Owen as an “erect boy ” for example, which garnered plenty of giggles from aging audience members but went right over my 10 year-old daughter’s head). It’s a church pageant after all, and Owen Meany takes his interpretation of the Bible very seriously, which just makes the pageant-gone-awry shtick all the more fun.
The main gist – Owen Meany’s quest to play the baby Jesus at the church Christmas pageant at Christ Church in Gravesend, New Hampshire – makes up just two chapters (4 and 5) of A Prayer for Owen Meany, yet the whole of the play. To provide context and setting for the main themes of the performance (faith, values, friendship, family, and loss) the actors fill in relevant backstory with spoken narrative that at times felt slow and awkward, yet are necessary elements for context and character. (I also wanted to edit out all of the “he said” and “she said” lines.)
Understood, this is how Book-It translates literary text into a performance that feels literary and “book like,” but the device still felt unnecessary at times. Still, there were moments when the translation really worked: an actor would utter a choice phrase from the novel (“hands flapping like a stranded bat” for example) and the line, when combined with clever onstage gestures, the audience nearly fell over with laughter.
Theatrically speaking, the production is excellent. The actors that make up the 20-person cast are at the top of their game, and the costume design is beguiling and superb. The stage is simple (no unnecessary props or gimmicks) and the theater is intimate enough that you easily imagine sitting inside a pew, watching the pageant unfold on stage. The performance runs just 70 minutes, with no intermission, perfect for squirmy school-age kids or easily bored teens. Overall it’s a heartwarming, endearingly sweet story, one that will be enjoyed by families seeking a slightly offbeat traditional Christmas tale for years to come.
If you go …
When: Owen Meany's Christmas Pageant runs Wednesday-Sunday, Dec. 7-23. Performances are at 2 p.m. for matinees or 7:30 p.m. for evening shows, with two shows per day on December 21 and 22nd (5 and 8 p.m.) and December 23 (2 p.m. and 5 p.m.).
Where: Center House Theater at the Seattle Center Armory, 305 Harrison Street, Seattle
Tickets: $23 - $45. Tickets and information at book-it.org or 206-216-0833
Age recommendation: Ages 12 and up; see above for details