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On 'Saints' and longings

Kate Fodor doesn't believe in God, but she explores God and prayer with '100 Saints You Should Know.'

May 29, 2011|By Rob Weinert-Kendt, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Kate Huffman and Marco Naggar at the Elephant Theatre Company in "100 Saints You Should Know."
Kate Huffman and Marco Naggar at the Elephant Theatre Company in "100… (Sven Ellirand )

Reporting from New York — — When you write a play called "100 Saints You Should Know," you're going to get questions about religion, and Kate Fodor — whose play premiered Off-Broadway in 2007 at Playwrights Horizons and opened this week at Hollywood's Elephant Theatre — is by no means wary of the subject, even as she attempts to broaden the inquiry.

Over breakfast in Manhattan, Fodor identifies herself as "an instinctually spiritual person who doesn't believe in either God or Tarot cards," partly crediting her upbringing by secular academics, though she seems sincerely curious about faiths she can't bring herself to share.

Fodor also insists that her five-character comic drama is really about different kinds of "longing for something higher," including but not limited to religious longing. In "100 Saints," a young priest, Matthew, privately questions his vocation just as his cleaning lady, Theresa, turns to him for spiritual answers. The play's other characters harbor their own aches for connection and clarity.

In short, Fodor — a former business journalist whose other plays include "Hannah and Martin," about the complex relationship between philosophers Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, and the upcoming "Rx," which she describes as a "goofy, romantic romp" through Big Pharma — makes a case for herself as a thoughtful, disinterested artist whose canvas just happened to include, in this one instance, questions of God and prayer.

Then, with an 11th-hour twist that marks her as a natural dramatist, Fodor drops a minor bombshell just as the interview is wrapping up.

"I was a Baptist briefly," she notes matter-of-factly, as if she were discussing a hair color she'd tried for a season. "I was baptized, the whole thing, full immersion." She was 12 and living in Connecticut on an isolated farm property, she explains. "It was a sort of lonely period of my childhood, and there was a family with a lot of kids who offered to pick me up and drive me to church and to the youth meetings. There was this incredible sense of community and bustle and joy that was completely missing from my life there otherwise."

Looking back now, that may be as close as she's been to a conception of God. "The only thing that passes the giggle test for me is that somehow you find God in what happens between people," she says. "Anything else I just can't get a handle on."

What happens between the people in "100 Saints" is a series of finely etched exchanges, many of them parent-child face-offs: between Theresa and her rebellious teenage daughter, Abby, and between Matthew and his chatty Irish Catholic mother, Colleen. The key to the play's success, says director Lindsay Allbaugh, is that Fodor hasn't rigged the balance of these exchanges.

"It's really important for me that a play has a point of view but that it's not hitting you over the head," says Allbaugh, who serves as co-artistic director of Elephant Theatre. "Questions are asked here, but how do you really answer a question of faith? You can't." In short, she says, "It doesn't feel like the playwright's hand is heavy."

When the play opened in New York, it got respectful if not ecstatic reviews, with Ben Brantley of the New York Times calling it "less a compellingly told story than … a static arrangement of portraits" and Marilyn Stasio of Variety writing, "While restricted in their thoughts, Fodor's closely observed characters speak well for themselves."

But Father James Martin, a member of New York's LAByrinth Theater Company who served as a consultant on the Off-Broadway production, speaks for many when he calls the play "one of the most accurate representations of a modern-day priest that I've seen on stage. Unlike many television and Broadway clergy, his joys and struggles, his hopes and dreams — even his way of speaking — seem true to life." Fodor's play, he says, "treats spiritual questions in a highly intelligent and nuanced way — another rarity."

Fodor traces the spark for "100 Saints" to something she read in passing — a reference in an article to a priest's cleaning lady. That relationship seemed suggestive to her, as much for its form as for its content.

"The thing people always ask playwrights about any play is, 'What was the inspiration?'" Fodor says. She credited a playwriting colleague with providing a useful answer. "She said it's not so much a fact or a character — it's a shape, and then the facts of the play have to start to fill that shape or that form or that movement. It's spatial somehow. So this play was this movement of these two bodies: Theresa moving away from something, and Matthew moving away from something, and both moving toward what it seems to them the other person has."

For her part, Fodor's spiritual inquiries didn't stop with "100 Saints."

"The things people write reflect the unsettled questions in their lives," Fodor says. "Writing about an unsettled question doesn't settle the question, but it does create some peace around it: You've gone down that hole, you've looked around that cave. Whatever the fears or doubts that are tied to that thing have a little less power over you."

Maybe that explains why Fodor has cast an unperturbed eye on the Quaker meeting house near her home in Doylestown, Penn.

"I keep thinking, the Quakers are cool — maybe I could do that."

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