Coming to Beverly Hills as a delightful pre-holiday treat, Josh MacDonald’s Halo combines the quirky charm of TV’s Northern Exposure and Picket Fences with more than a bit of Christmas spirit. 

Based on a true story (10 years ago or so, an apparition of the Virgin Mary showed up on the side of a Tim Hortons donut shop in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia), Halo introduces us to a number of diverse characters including:

•Donald McMullen, whose 20ish daughter Meg lies comatose and brain-dead in the local hospital.  Donald refuses to give up hope in Meg’s recovery, even if it means neglecting his Christmas tree farm.

•Lizzie McMullen, Donald’s older daughter, back in town with invisible braces on her teeth and “talking like a Torontonian.”  When Lizzie dares to suggest that her dad’s hopes for Meg may be in vain, Donald insists that “her fists are curled. She’s fighting!”

•Casey Quinn, a spunky Tim Hortons employee and the town cynic.  Casey’s dad is off in Halifax with his new girlfriend, so Casey is back in town for a while until she “gets her act together.”

•Jansen Block, Casey’s devoutly Catholic (and spectacularly muscled) athlete boyfriend. Though Jansen is crazy about Casey, she warns him, “I’m not sticking around.  Let’s just have fun while I’m here.”

•Father JJ, the shaggy-haired new priest in town, who’s having a hard time “filling Father McEvoy’s shoes.” The locals won’t call him JJ,: in fact, about the only thing they’ll say to him is, “Get a haircut!”

•Fat Bob, the formerly obese manager of the local Tim Hortons, who can’t seem to shake his previously spot-on nickname.

Small town Nova Scotia life is moving along slowly but smoothly in the fictitious Nately until the morning when the image of Jesus Christ appears on the wall outside the shop–looking like a cross between Willie Nelson and Grizzly Adams.  Suddenly customers are arriving in droves and leaving large tips, their faces filled with joy.  One mom wants to set up a lawn chair outside just to sit and watch the wall.  Under Fat Bob’s orders, the shop starts operating 24/7. The Christian folk duo Dove arrive with songs to sing, proclaiming “This is wonderful exposure for us!” Soon there are people everywhere, holding candles and singing (in perfect harmony) “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony” and “It’s the real thing.” Then the media descend on Nately, “kind of the Catholic Woodstock,” including Mim Myers, a news reporter so hyper that Casey asks her, “Can I interest you in some decaf?”  Interest in the town becomes so great that, as one character puts it, “the only way this could get bigger is if Jesus fell down a well.”

Halo, which after numerous Canadian productions is having its U.S. premiere, has more on its mind than just entertainment, though entertain it does.  The play touches on the meaning of faith, and the need to believe. Jansen tells Casey that “whoever prays the most wins,” and later that “believing is hard, cause there’s always someone around telling you to stop.”  Donald truly believes “God’ll bring Meg back when I pray right.” Maybe his wife up in heaven is pulling some strings and this time they’ll get their miracle, he tells Lizzie, who is more realistic.  One miracle would make Meg breathe again, but they’d need a second miracle to bring back her mind, and that’s one miracle too many to ask for, she tells her dad.

Director Bruce Gray has just the right light touch to make Halo work, and his cast give all-around marvelous performances—David Hunt Stafford as the salt-of-the-earth Donald and Emily Button as his more sensible daughter, Frances Manzo as tough-girl Casey and Glen Brackenridge as her hunky but slightly dim boyfriend (““I’m doing concentration curls, Casey. I’ve got to concentrate on them.”), John T. Cogan as the “bodacious indie priest,” Gary Ballard as the crotchety shop manager, Christine Joëlle as the assertive TV reporter, and Steve Brewster and Christy Holy as the squeaky clean Dove.

Scenic designer Jeff G. Rack’s inventive set is composed of various pieces of furniture (and a movable Tim Hortons counter) which are stacked high upstage until the cast arrive en masse to assemble the various pieces, as one of the actors traces a halo-shaped circle with chalk around the stage area above which a halo of white Christmas lights glitters. Lighting designer Ellen Monocroussos does her usual fine work, as does sound designer Marc Olevin, particularly in creating the sounds of an artificial breathing machine for scenes in Meg’s hospital room.  Holly Victoria’s costumes are just right for the small town winter setting, including a set of white baseball caps appropriately topped by wire-and-fur halos.

With only a half-dozen more performances of Halo remaining before Theatre 40 gets ready for its December Christmas offering (David Birney’s A Christmas Pudding), theatergoers in need of a bit of pre-holiday holiday spirit are well advised to visit Nately, Nova Scotia before Halo closes. Bring along a donut, for full effect.

Theatre 40, 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills.

–Steven Stanley
October 27, 2008
Photos: Ed Krieger

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