PROVO — “Physician, heal thyself.” This proverb from the New Testament book of Luke implies that a person should repair their own faults before helping others fix their flaws. The central character of Paint My Eyes struggles with this very problem. As an LDS missionary in Germany the play opens finding Elder Garn struggling with his own personal crisis, which prevents him from fulfilling his purpose of helping others obtain spiritual healing.
It’s early 1995 in Germany, and Elder Garn is two days away from finishing his mission. Arriving in town is Elder Benson, a fresh 19-year-old missionary who is too enthusiastic for the weary Elder Garn. Benson finds that his efforts to cheer up his companion and revitalize the proselyting work in the city are more difficult than he anticipated. As time passes, Benson discovers that the problems are deeper than a homesick companion and that Garn’s problems are not unlike the problems plaguing the German national psyche as it deals with its past.
As Elder Garn, John Lane is convincing as the experienced, emotionally tired missionary. I particularly loved how much his companion embarrassed Elder Garn during some of the lessons they taught to their investigators. As more information about the character is revealed in the play, Lane’s performance becomes more impassioned, reaching a peak in the first song that occurs in his brain. Lane also showed the depth of the spiritual crisis that Elder Garn was passing through, especially in the scenes in the missionaries’ apartment. A lesser actor would have shown Elder Garn to be a mopey 21-year-old, but Lane made Garn’s pain apparent without making it overbearing or immature.
Opposite Lane (in so many ways) was James Bounous as Elder Benson. Bounous’s energy was so pervasive that it was easy to see how a jaded, worn down missionary would easily get tired of being around Elder Benson. I especially enjoyed the naive way that Elder Benson approached talking to strangers on the street and the eagerness with which he wanted to try out his new lesson ideas. I also appreciated how Bounous showed his character’s sincere concern for his companion’s problems and how he sometimes succumbed to his own impulses (such as telling white lies or invading his companion’s privacy). Bounous created his best performance, though, in “Shades of Gray,” which had the emotional power of any Broadway power ballad.
Paint My Eyes is a work still in development, and Jamie Erekson (who wrote the book, music, and lyrics) will make some needed adjustments to the show before another audience sees it. One problem with the script is that the first half hour is entirely about Garn’s difficulties. Therefore, when the ugliness of the Kristallnacht begins to take on major importance, the purpose and central conflict of the show seem to shift. Moreover, it is not explicit how all the characters are tied into Kristallnacht, especially because the age of some characters (like Freymann) would imply that Kristallnacht, the Holocaust, and World War II all happened before they were even born. Shifting the action to the 1960’s or so would easily fix this problem. I also suggest that Erekson introduce the different components of the story earlier (perhaps in a new opening number), which should be relatively easy because of the non-linear structure of some of the story. The second scene also plods on too long, and the awkward moments between Freymann (played by Brian Russell Carey) had me speculating too much (and inappropriately) about what Elder Garn’s problem was.
Yet, even without any changes Paint My Eyes is a strong piece of theatre. Director George D. Nelson was an excellent shepherd for this work, and his ability to create an emotionally intense second half cannot be overpraised. Nelson also mined the humor of the script effectively, which not only made the play genuinely enjoyable, but also provided a stark contrast with the deeper moments. Erekson’s score is also marvelous, with heavy influences from Stephen Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown, and the complex nature of songs like “Pull up a Chair” and “Two Years” would lend them a long afterlife on a cast album or iTunes downloads. (Although readers should note that I’m guessing about the song titles because there was no song list in the program.)
Paint My Eyes is not a perfect show, but I am optimistic that Erekson can unify the disparate parts of the story without sacrificing the emotion or rich score. I look forward to the time when Erekson takes the musical to a fringe festival or when BYU gives the work another chance.