A mystery in Alaska is at heart of Diversionary's world-premiere play 'The Hour of Great Mercy'

Like the central character in her play “The Hour of Great Mercy,” Miranda Rose Hall knows what it is to make a consequential journey to Alaska.

Unlike the protagonist of that work, which is about to receive its world premiere at San Diego’s Diversionary Theatre, Hall’s trip there eight years ago was the first time she’d set foot in the 49th State. And the mere idea of doing so just about froze her with fear.

“It was a terrifying prospect — the idea of moving to Alaska scared me out of my mind,” says Hall of relocating to Anchorage after college to perform service work with a Jesuit volunteer corps, providing “a ministry of presence” to people receiving long-term and end-of-life care.

After all, Hall grew up in downtown Baltimore and was “afraid of grass as a child,” she says with a gentle laugh, chatting by phone between rehearsals at Diversionary.

And yet “it was also the kind of fear that was kind of intriguing,” she acknowledges. “From its inception, (moving there) felt like a pretty radical thing to do. And once I got there, it was very clearly an extreme and pretty radical place to be.

“And it totally captivated me. It was unlike any place I'd ever been before, and I just felt this very electric sense of connection to the community and the environment and the people I was serving.”

All of it — the isolation of the place, the bonds among people there, maybe a little of the fear, too — eventually would be filtered through her writer’s eye and, some five years later, into “The Hour of Great Mercy” — first as Hall’s thesis project at the Yale School of Drama and now as a piece about to receive its professional debut at the LGBTQ-centered theater.

The play centers on Ed, a gay Jesuit priest who returns to his family home in a remote Alaskan town called Bethlehem, in a last-ditch bid for reconciliation.

His visit takes place against the backdrop of past tragedy, the nature of which Hall is reluctant to talk about for fear of giving away too much.

The play’s title refers to the hour on Good Friday, that, in Catholic traditions, Christ is said to have died on the cross: 3 p.m.

That also happens to be around the time the sun sets — what sun there is, anyway — in much of Alaska in the dead of winter.

Finding the poetry

Alaska, as it happens, wasn’t the only thing that seemed unlikely to be part of Hall’s future once upon a time. So was playwriting.

Hall originally entered Georgetown University with the intent of becoming a poet and literature teacher. Soon, though, she found herself diving “feet-first into the theater community there.” Then she learned that “playwrights existed and could be alive,” rather than simply names on a page. “That was news to me!”

But Hall’s poetry background and the way it influences her writing turned out to be one of the big draws for Diversionary executive artistic director Matt M. Morrow when he decided to program the piece, which is being directed for the theater by the distinguished San Diego stage artist Rosina Reynolds.

“I was immediately drawn to Miranda’s voice as a writer,” Morrow says. “She is able to draw characters so specifically and intimately, just through the dialogue, without forcing exposition. There’s just an ease to her writing — it just flows so naturally. So I really connected with her talent on that level.

“But I was also really moved by the subject matter. It’s a very gentle piece. The word I always use in describing this piece is ‘compassion.’ It just makes room for people and their experience.

“I just don’t think you find that very often — a gentle, sensitive and compassionate piece like this.

“Our industry is rife with competition and people trying to stand out and distinguish themselves,” Morrow adds. “And Miranda doesn’t seem interested in staking a claim or being ‘BOLD.’ She’s bold, but in a very understated way. There’s a real maturity to her work that I was really impressed by.”

“Hour” fits into a larger phenomenon that has developed at Diversionary since Morrow took over as leader just over four years ago: A determination to champion new work, often by promising young writers just starting to make waves.

The University Heights company has proved a crucial developmental ground for such recent world-premiere plays as “Ballast” and “The Loneliest Girl in the World,” as well as the musical “The Boy Who Danced on Air,” which went on to an off-Broadway run in 2017.

Morrow acknowledges that for a small nonprofit there are risks involved in stepping up to produce unproven new works.

“But that’s just what we do,” he says. “If I wanted to be safe, I would go into insurance.

“And with Miranda specifically, I thought she has a unique voice that needs to be heard. (And) many times larger institutions won’t take a chance on new writers like this.”

Partners on the journey

As the production of “Hour” has ramped up at Diversionary, Hall has been in town for much of the process, working closely with Reynolds as well as the production’s five actors: Dana Case (as Maggie), Patrick Mayuyu (Joseph), Andrew Oswald (Ed), Eileen Rivera (Irma) and Tom Stephenson (Roger).

For Reynolds, who has directed numerous shows around San Diego, staging a world premiere is always “an interesting journey,” because “your collaboration with the playwright is supreme.”

That’s even more so when the playwright is there in person: “It’s not a matter of checking in with us all the time, but making sure the voice in her head is being realized,” as Reynolds puts it. “It's actually refreshing in many ways.”

And Hall “is extremely collaborative. She’s protective of the material, as she should be as the writer, but also open to exploring all aspects.”

One of the most surprising aspects of “Hour” is how the piece began to take shape in earnest: As a “gift play” for Hall’s father.

That idea came from Hall’s playwriting mentor at Yale — the much-produced Sarah Ruhl, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist whose “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)” hit Broadway in 2009.

“We had a lot of conversations about gift plays, and it’s an important part of her philosophy for a playwright — the idea of writing a play for a person you love,” Hall says of Ruhl.

“Around the same time, she wrote a play for her mother, ‘For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday.’ So this idea of writing gift plays for my parents (developed).

“I had been writing a lot of crazy plays — absurd comedies, ‘letting some steam out’ plays. I said I wanted to write a play that my parents would think was beautiful.

“She said, ‘It sounds like you should write a gift play for your father.’ ”

So when Hall began work on the play, “I wrote out a list of ingredients that I thought would need to be included in a gift play for my dad. And was I was writing it out, I started connecting some of those ingredients to Alaska. And Alaska, in my imagination, is kind of inseparable from Catholicism, and concerns and conversations about the end of life.”

Hall actually is Presbyterian rather than Catholic. Her father’s side of the family was Italian Catholic, and her dad “grew up very religious.”

But in his youth, “he got really upset that the church didn't take a strong stance against the Vietnam War. That kind of unraveled his relationship with the institution of the Catholic Church.”

For her own part, says Hall, “I think I would've converted to Catholicism if I hadn’t been queer” and hadn’t grown accustomed to women in leadership positions in her own church.

“But I feel I absorbed a lot of Catholicism, even though I was raised in the Presbyterian church,” she adds. And because her dad is a choral conductor, “he spent a lot of his career performing sacred music, so that has been a big part of my life.”

Catholic sacraments and rituals are part of the fabric of “Hour,” as are “questions about the nature of intimacy in a very isolated place, and questions about love and reconciliation.

“One of the things this character (Ed) inhabits for me is somebody who really interrogates his space, and interrogates what his authentic relationship with God is like. And has a pretty queer spiritual theology, which is something that I also inhabit.”

For Hall, that means “certainly acceptance and tolerance — and I think on a more primal level, an understanding of the divine as a pretty queer force. Understanding God outside of a gender hierarchy.

“There’s a moment in the play where Ed says: “’There’s nothing on Earth more queer than God — so fluid, so encompassing the spectrum, and so devoted to radical love.’

“And I’ve met a lot of Catholics who have a very fluid understanding of the divine, in a way that maybe contradicts the kind of dogma of the overall Catholic church.

“There is definitely an earthiness and a transformative quality to Catholic social teaching. And I really connect to that.”

And by the way: Yes, Hall’s father got to see the play that was written for him.

“My dad really loved it,” she reports.

But just to be safe, she admits: “I didn't tell him it was a gift play for him until he told me he liked it!”

“The Hour of Great Mercy”

When: In preview. Opens Feb. 9. 7 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Through March 3.

Where: Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd., University Heights

Tickets: About $22.50-$50 (discounts available)

Phone: (619) 220-0097

Online: diversionary.org

jim.hebert@sduniontribune.com

Twitter: @jimhebert

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