It’s tough praying in the parking lot

Cranbrook Community Theatre's ‘Halo’ opens tonight, Friday, Oct. 10, at the Studio Stage Door

There is no forgotten pocket of Canada that our great national purveyor of coffee and doughtnuts hasn’t become part of, and become a familiar, homey part of the landscape. Also, as they say, there is no forgotten, lonely pocket of the human heart that Jesus Christ can’t inhabit.

But what if these two factors are combined? What if a place so provincial, so parochial and out of the way (where you don’t take “a cab,” you take “the cab”) is transformed into a place of miraculous visitation, along the lines of Our Lady Of Lourdes? What happens then?

“Halo,” a play by Canadian Josh MacDonald, is Cranbrook Community Theatre’s latest offering at the Studio Stage Door. Directed by Terry Miller and produced by Sally Masters and Brenda Babinski, it opens tonight, Friday.

Let us take Nately, Nova Scotia — “a good place to stop and pee.” So says young Casey Quinn (Alexa Laing Moore), who has returned to her mother’s town, largely against her will, where she is trapped behind the counter of Tim Hortons, viewing unsophisticated small town life with a baleful eye and a sarcastic tongue. Her boyfriend, the hockey playing Jansen Block (David Webb), is her opposite number in many ways. He loves the simple comforts of the old home life, and defends it to Casey, fleeing to his weights and skipping rope when their conversations become too acid.

In coffee line-ups, the characters are introduced:

Father Kirby (“call me JJ,” played by Jerrod Bondy) occupies an uncomfortable position as the progressive priest, viewed with suspicion by the more traditionalist Natelians, for his long hair and his sermons incorporating movie references;

Don McMullin (Bob McCue), an eccentric bumpkin;

Fat Bob (Peter Schalk), the doughnut Czar;

Myriad passers-by, townsfolk and others seeking coffee, multiple parts played admirably by Peter Schalk and Hannah van der Roest.

Everyone in devout Catholic Nately knows God is watching. What happens if you find out where he’s watching from?

So, when a miraculous apparition appears in the parking lot, on  the wall of the Tim Hortons, fervour ensues. The hordes of pilgrims begin to arrive. As Casey says, suddenly the place “is lousy with folk groups.” The cynical and the opportunistic quickly follow, sensing gain at the shrine.

What happens when miracles and advertising campaigns mix? What happens? What happens?

Everyone is waiting for something to happen. And the logical outcome, of course, is … a parking lot High Mass.

This situation affects everyone differently. And Casey, as the woman behind the coffee counter, has a close-up view of everyone’s reaction, including her friend the priest’s. It strikes us that Casey has a better connection with JJ, who is also at sea in the small town, than she has with Jansen, her pious boyfriend. Of course, JJ is envious and angry — and admits it — that the apparition on the wall can move so many religiously, while he can only be told to get a hair cut.

Jansen, however, rejoices in the advent of the miracle.

So it falls to Casey and Jansen, who each take the sides, sort of, of reason versus faith. Arguing over the apparition, the flaws in their respective arguments are balanced by their commitment to them. At one point, Casey points out that her hockey playing boyfriend is wearing his knee pads.

“It’s tough praying out there, in the parking lot,” Jansen says.

Maybe, but it is not as hard to pray out there as it is at the hospital bedside of Megan McMullin, a young woman in a coma, whose father, Donald McMullin, farmer and Nately stalwart, is in an agony of waiting, trying to pray for a miracle. But here’s a thing — what’s the right way to pray? What if prayers aren’t answered unless you’re praying right?

For running alongside the dark comedy of the Tim Hortons parking lot is a secondary story, a tragedy, of a family in turmoil and transition. To complicate McMullin’s sorrow, his other daughter, Liz (Zoe Dupley) has returned home, from Toronto — another CFA (Come From Away), one who set out to escape the confines of the small town, but returns to find her father trying to pray for a miracle and a town transformed by religious fervour.

We wait for the two stories to intersect, and they eventually will. And throughout, this sharp, insightful play will examine the nature of miracles and prayer, religion and faith, and the problems faced by all CFAs and those who stayed home.

Special mention of the performance of Bob McCue and Zoe Dupley as Don and Liz McMullin, whose portrayal of a family in emotional tumult does not detract from, from, but rather complements, the madcap furor of the Tim Hortons shrine.

“Halo” opens tonight at the Studio Stage Door, and runs October 10, 11, 15, 16, 17, 18, 22, 23, 24 & 25. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets available at Lotus Books.

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