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Lilies of the Field -09/26/1998


"Lilies of the Field" was a small movie, even for 1963, but a memorable one.

With no explosions, no guns, no car chases, no villains -- not even a romantic interest for hero Homer Smith -- "Lilies" depended on homespun characters, a sense of faith, and gentle humor to catch its audience.

And it succeeded.

This story of a plain-spoken day-laborer who wanders into the lives of a group of stern German nuns earned classic status as a movie, and won Sidney Poitier a Best Actor Oscar as Homer.

On stage at the Community Players Theatre, "Lilies of the Field" is more problematic. What was sweet and whimsical on screen seems talky and passive on stage, with a somewhat lethargic pace and a lack of dramatic arc.

To its credit, the Community Players production is heartfelt and earnest, featuring several charming performances and a clear attention to detail.

But it is hampered by a script that relies too much on narration, on long speeches delivered directly to the audience, on a great deal of "telling" and not enough "showing."

Part of that comes from the episodic structure of the story, which is really a series of vignettes illustrating the clash of wills between the stubborn Mother Superior and equally headstrong Homer.

Mother Maria Marthe insists that Homer was a direct gift from God, that she asked for a strong man to fix up the barren farm the nuns live on, and most importantly, to build her a chapel, and God responded.

But Homer resents being seen as somebody's present. Besides, he says, "God didn't send no black Baptist to no Catholic nun."

Neither one is giving in, however, and Homer finds himself staying at the meager farm much longer than he could've anticipated. There are cultural differences, discouraging moments, set-backs and ultimate triumph, illustrated by short scenes and narration.

Much of the action -- the building of the chapel, for example -- is off-stage or related after the fact, making it a real challenge for a director to find some way to bring the drama alive. Community Players' director Jeremy R. Stiller shows he works well with actors, but his blocking is somewhat static, and the succession of speeches delivered from fixed spots on opposite sides of the stage develop a sameness.

The scenes that work best in this production are the most active ones -- when Homer battles for a more substantial breakfast, or when he teaches the nuns a little English or a gospel song.

In fact, that vibrant, stirring rendition of "Amen" picks up the pace and brings Act I to a rousing close. It's electric. It's also clear evidence of the magic these performers can make if given the material.

Among the cast, Corey L. Hardin bears the largest burden. As Homer, he's on-stage almost every moment, plus he has all those huge soliloquies. Hardin is an amiable, engaging performer, with a good deal of personal charm. He does a fine job connecting with the audience, as well as finding the humor in his dialogue. And he sounds just terrific on that amazing "Amen."

Hardin also interacts well with Carol Scott, who portrays the intractable Mother Maria Marthe. Scott successfully projects her character's inflexibility, but could dig a bit deeper to find a sense of the Mother's abiding faith and strength, of her humanity.

Hosaia Brown, as Father Garrison, is a polished, poised speaker, and Mark Wright, as Mexican cafe owner Jose, seems natural and at-ease.

I also enjoyed the performance of Carol L. Plotkin, who had fun with Sister Albertine, the most relaxed of the nuns.

The costumes, designed by Emily and Sharon Beaudin, and Christopher Terven's lighting design are both on-target, while the scenery, co-designed by Terven and director Stiller, relies on a simple back drop and a couple of excellent rolling set pieces.

Dan Virtue contributes some nice sound effects, although more musical segues between scenes, as well as a bit of underscoring, might've been welcome, especially since we learn that music is such a part of Homer.

All in all, this "Lilies of the Field" has its heart in the right place. It just needs to move more, and get there a little faster.

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