By Manning Harris
There are some plays that sneak up on you, play games with your psyche, and then hang around in your subconscious as the inner life of the play continues to have fun with your own inner life. Such a work is “Hidden Man,” a joint production of 7 Stages and the University of Georgia Theatre Department, now playing at 7 Stages through March 25.
Rev. Howard Finster, sometimes called the Picasso of folk artists, built a spiritual/artistic retreat called Paradise Gardens in Summerville, Georgia. Into this heavenly hideaway ambles a young punk rocker/artist from Atlanta in the early 1980’s called Robert Sherer. These are real people; the play is based on truth but hastily proceeds to use ample artistic license to tell its story. The real Finster died in 2001; Sherer is still very much alive.
We’re told in the program that young Sherer (Malcolm Campbell-Taylor) arrives full of angst, knowing little about himself except he’s gay, probably atheist, and feels destined to kill himself. He has a pal with him named Charlie Jackson (Jordan Harris), who’s a side-kick, sometimes lover, and guardian angel. Charlie’s much more comfortable with his sexuality than Robert, who seems fairly conflicted about almost everything—he is Ennis to Charlie’s Jack, a la “Brokeback Mountain.”
Of course the Bible-thumping Rev. Finster would seem to be diametrically opposed to Sherer, and there are Old Testament verses painted around the property, on mirrors and trees. Yet—and this is key—Finster does not openly condemn young Sherer. So what drew these two disparate human beings together? It’s a mystery; yet herein lies the heart of “Hidden Man.” Director Del Hamilton is fascinated with how a person heeds the call to be an artist—and how one may find encouragement from the most unlikely people.
Playwright Pamela Turner (who wrote the play with Russell Blackmon) reports that Sherer spoke of the dreamlike world of Paradise Gardens in the 80’s and how that “crazy old fundamentalist Baptist preacher who represented everything I hated” saved the “then nihilistic punk rocker from suicide.”
The show is indeed dreamlike: there’s The Stranger (Adam Fiddler) who at times wears wings and seems straight out of “Angels in America.” Is he human? Hard to tell; and then there’s The Woman (Victoria Bennett) who sings some, washes clothes, but stops just short of playing a “Deliverance” banjo.
Rev. Howard Finster is played by George Contini—a superb performance. Finster is a master of the non sequitur: He almost drives you crazy with it; but then, so does Sherer. That’s one thing they’ve got in common. But more than that, they have their art. The mystery of artistic expression and human sexuality are both explored here, usually as subtext.
Mr. Campell-Taylor’s Sherer is quite extraordinary; he’s a very large talent still growing. And Mr. Harris is excellent and heartbreaking, as it becomes apparent that Sherer cannot fully return Charlie’s love. These two young men are both U. of GA students; they both have stunning futures.
There’s nudity in the play, as both of these characters symbolically wash each other clean from sin and lust. The scene is beautifully and sensitively performed; hard to imagine anyone being offended.
7 Stages and Del Hamilton have never been afraid to walk on the edge, as it were. “Hidden Man,” a world premiere, may still be a work in progress, but it’s the finest piece of pure theatre I’ve seen in quite a while. Wacky, dreamy, funny, and very human—it takes you on quite a ride. Head to Little 5.
For tickets and information, visit 7stages.org.