Father Damien was a Catholic priest who lived with the lepers on the Hawaiian island of Molokai and fought for their humane treatment until he died of leprosy in 1889.
Peter Mackey of Adrian is a veteran actor who has appeared in such local productions as Much Ado About Nothing at the Village Players, Inherit the Wind at the Toledo Repertoire Theatre, Desire Under the Elms at the Croswell Opera House, and Escanaba in Da Moonlight at Ms. Rose's Dinner Theater.
The priest and the performer come together in Damien, a one-man play that runs through next weekend at Ms. Rose's in Perrysburg.
It is the right material in the right hands, for Mackey brings Damien to life: The priest's dedication, stubbornness, temptations, and holiness are all on display.
Damien would seem to be an odd choice for Ms. Rose's. Dinner theaters tend toward the light-hearted and the comedic, which this production definitely is not. However, there are elements of both in it, as well as curiosity, humor, and joy. Before he was beatified by the Roman Catholic Church, Damien was but a man, one who took a decidedly unholy glee at besting the bureaucrats - at least in a battle of wits - with whom he had to deal.
The stage is stark, dressed in black and grays, with two small platforms to the left and right. Directly ahead, a simple altar holds candles. A large crucifix decorated with Hawaiian designs dominates the set. On the platform to the left are a chair and a small stand that holds books. It doubles as, among other things, Damien's family home and his quarters on Molokai. A small bench sits on the platform to the right, which symbolizes authority: the bishop's office, the health department.
“The leper boat always leaves at dusk,” Damien says, recalling how people with a hint of the disease are forcibly removed from their families and transported to Molokai, a grim, forbidding rock with no housing, no laws, no doctors. The authorities are more concerned with keeping the healthy safe rather than treating the ill.
When he learns that Molokai has no priests, Damien is appalled, and he volunteers for the job. The bishop, who is used to dealing with this impetuous young man, tries to talk him out of it, but Damien stands firm. It is his calling, his niche. “God help you, my son,” the bishop says. “God help us both,” Damien replies.
We hear the bishop's words through Damien's recollections, for he is the only one on the stage. Through his eyes and his memories, we hear the arguments with the health department, the amused embarrassment when three women demand to be his housekeepers, the growth of his understanding and determination to accept the lepers as valued comrades, not objects of pity.
Aldyth Morris' play is a history lesson and a biography. Damien is also, Mackey said in an interview between performances, a magnificent character for an actor to portray.“I am open to heroes. I find them all over the place. I like stories of people of integrity; they are like magnets to me,” he explained.
Mackey said he first saw the play on PBS in 1977, about a year after it had its premiere at the University of Hawaii. About 10 years later, he saw it performed at the Stratford Festival and his fascination grew.
“This man's life is ready-made drama. He wasn't perfect; I have no illusions about that,” Mackey said. “[The leper colony on Molokai] was a horrible situation; there were no elements of civility. And [Damien] went into this and made it into a human community.”
Mackey's admiration is palpable and understandable, and his performance is formidable.
Damien may not be traditional dinner-theater fare, but with Mackey's talent and passion, it is a compelling, thought-provoking, and thoroughly satisfying production.
“Damien” continues tonight in Ms. Rose's Dinner Theater, 25740 North State Rt. 25, Perrysburg. Doors open at 6 for dinner; the play starts at 8. Next week's final performances are Thursday and May 23. Tickets are $36. Information: 419-874-8505.