'Visionary Man': Theater Review

Ed Krieger
A heartfelt, well-meaning fail about real-life folk artist John Bunion Murray, who claimed his work was the result of divine inspiration. 

Georgia-based art scholar Mary Padgelek's first play is a bio-drama with gospel music, based on her book about the life, work and spiritual beliefs of self-taught painter J.B. Murray

The difference between being a genius and having genius is a simple question of ego. Artists and poets prior to the Renaissance often claimed to be moved by a creative spirit, the manifestation of which was called genius. But with the age of Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Caravaggio, genius came to refer to the man alone, without the help of credit-grabbing spirits.

American folk artist J.B. Murray took little credit for the thousand or so paintings he made, works that hang in museums around the world, instead praising the "hand of the spirit." One day while he was watering his potato patch in Glascock County, Georgia, an eagle flew though his sight line, which he took as a sign from above. With no artistic training, he began obsessively working on colorful abstract paintings that often include indecipherable text only he can translate. Conspicuously absent are crosses, angels and other religious iconography.

Where Murray never proselytized in his paintings, playwright Mary Padgelek’s Visionary Man, currently world-premiering at Hudson Mainstage in Hollywood, does nothing but proselytize, which is one reason it adds up to a well-meaning failure.

"Oh, there you are," says Dr. Williams (Will North), a hokey country physician stumbling upon his audience in the show's opening moments. "Well, I'd like to tell you a story," which is hardly surprising being we're in a theater. As far as openings go, this one has the towering thought and originality of "Once upon a time."

The full ensemble gathers for "In the Hands of the Holy Spirit," a catchy number that sounds composed for Sunday school, before the play settles into the story of Murray (Jimmer Bolden), a simple sort who lives in a humble shack on the outskirts of town. Bolden brings an affable warmth to the character, but is limited by a script that seems bent on canonizing him. With a protagonist that seems incapable of a selfish gesture or moral transgression, Visionary Man succumbs to a form of stasis strewn with folksy platitudes. Conflict is introduced in the form of J.B.’s son, Samuel (Yorke Fryer), whose political ambitions are thwarted by his father's reputation as an eccentric kook among the townsfolk.  

While this alone is enough to build a story around, playwright Padgelek never really explores Murray's relationship with his son but instead uses it as a razor-thin plotline on which to hang Visionary Man's numerous gospel numbers and sentimental ballads. The few exceptions include Samuel's playful song, "I'm So Glad I'm a Righteous Man," in which he tangos and waltzes with the town gossips, and "Something That I'd Never Do," the show's best number, also featuring the gossips, Juanita (Sequoia Houston), Mamie (Courtney Turner) and above all, Rheta Mae (Stephanie Martin), who steals every scene she's in. Martin is a two-time winner on TV's Big Break and is perhaps the best singer in the cast, but has somehow been shunted aside in a minor role.

As Samuel's political ambitions grow, he decides to have his father committed to a mental institution at a time when the old man has been questioning his own sanity, another conflict ripe for exploration but, as with the father-son split, blithely ignored. It's one of Visionary Man's consistent failings that whenever it comes near some friction that might make for compelling drama, it brushes right past on its way to another uninspired gospel number.

Director Tom Coleman phones in his contribution, mainly planting his actors in a single spot during dialogue scenes, and handing it over to Ali North, whose choreography is better than the music. North, like Coleman and cast, seems trapped by Padgelek's hapless play, performing like the string quartet on the deck of the Titanic.

Art scholar Padgelek teaches at Georgia's Lamar Dodd School of Art. And while she means well, Visionary Man is a first effort that puts her inexperience plainly on display, from her clunky dialogue to wafer-thin characterizations, simplistic themes and generic gospel tunes. She is, by her own admission, a devout Christian whose aim here seems to be to spread the word through theater. If art for art's sake means anything, it means preaching should be done from the pulpit and not the proscenium.

Cast: Jimmer Bolden, Yorke G. Fryer, Caitlin Gallogy, Sequoia Houston, Joshua Leduc, Stephanie Martin, Will North, Jacquelin Schofield, Courtney Turner, Ernest Williams

Director: Tom Coleman

Playwright: Mary Padgelek, adapted from her book "In the Hand of the Holy Spirit: The Visionary Art of J.B. Murray" 

Set and Llghting designer: William Cleckler

Music & lyrics: Mary Padgelek

Costume designer: Helen P. Butler

Presented by David Weiher