The Ascetic of Lincoln County
nytheatre.com review by Gregg Bellon
August 15, 2004
With The Ascetic of Lincoln County, writer/director Philip Atlakson taps into a long tradition of religious proselytizing in a contemporary context. Ostensibly about the clash of eastern and western ideals, the play ultimately presents a testimonial of the Evangelical kind, starring the transformative power of “sudden enlightenment,” punctuated by the ultimate conversion of the antithesis of ecclesiastic authority: post-modern secularism (a.k.a. cynicism). If all this sounds pedantic, I have to admit that for a play about spirituality, The Ascetic has a fairly academic tone.
In an ambiguous Northwest American desert, the eponymous Ascetic (Paul Klementowicz) has been standing on a small rock for more than 300 days without food, rest, or shelter, when husband and wife, Jerry (Mark Lynch) and Sara (Kirstin Allen), stroll in tentatively to witness what Jerry calls “something big… a miracle.” Sara is less than impressed, playing devil’s advocate by questioning the Ascetic’s motives and the reasonable physiological impossibility of his claim. Jerry tries his best to convince Sara that the tradition of asceticism has commercial historical value, i.e., get a good shot of it because someday the photo might be worth something. Sara doesn’t even want to look at the Ascetic much less be there any longer, and the more Jerry tries to convince her that she should just believe, the more she becomes determined to discredit and disprove the Ascetic’s motives. Her need to prove Jerry wrong highlights the play’s ulterior motive: a marriage strained by modernism that must redeem itself through spirituality or perish.
All told, the package sells! The performers excel at executing the sincerity yet universality of their respective characters, all with wonderful comic timing and execution. Credit is due to Klementowicz as the Ascetic, not least for his focus while standing in true-to-character stillness pre-show and throughout most of the play. In an interesting directorial choice, Justin Ness, who plays the no-nonsense Sheriff in later scenes, provides an on-stage percussion soundtrack from a conspicuously hung wooden plank on which he taps out rhythms during scene shifts. As the Everyman American married couple, Lynch and Allen masterfully capture the annoying nuances of hollow middle-class Americanism: his, an attempt to connect and communicate in a modern way; hers, a need to assert and exhibit her post-feminist intellect. But the weight they carry is greater than mere allegory.
Atlakson imposes an extreme demand on these characters, of biblical proportions. He layers in vague references (without specific names) to other cultures and religions, but deliberately invokes the Jesus Prayer, which the Ascetic mouths throughout and which Sara associates with Salinger’s “Franny & Zooey,” not with church or religion. In fact, at times I felt that this play was trying to have a conversation with Salinger’s story, specifically answering the notion that to embrace wisdom through asceticism is ultimately a selfish pursuit to hoard wisdom. Atlakson prefers to assume the ascetic ideal as pure, but the closing moment of the play seems to be a testimonial, not a detached internalizing of asceticism. All told, The Ascetic proves to be a well crafted, well executed, albeit ecclesiastical, messenger of a “Way.”