The new play “Hidden Man,” by Pamela Turner with Russell Blackmon, at 7 Stages through March 25, dramatizes the unlikely real-life friendship that developed in the early 1980s between artist Robert Sherer, then a rebellious young street punk, and fundamentalist Baptist visionary folk artist Howard Finster. The show deals with complicated issues and has some great scenes, but still somehow the whole never quite coalesces into a cohesive, compelling narrative.
The play focuses a great deal on the relationship between Sherer (Malcolm Campbell-Taylor) and Charlie Jackson (Jordan Harris), a fellow young artist, roomie and bedmate who wishes to rescue Sherer from his self-destructive tendencies. Both actors are students at the University of Georgia Theatre Department, which co-produced the play. It’s a smart use of resources as the two young actors bring a lot of energy and authenticity to the parts of rebellious punks, never an easy thing to depict on stage.
In addition, they have an especially challenging task, playing an unusual, non-stereotypical same-sex couple. There aren’t many precedents. Their playful roughhousing and troubled interactions are always interesting, but the pair’s story lacks an essential closeness and tenderness in the first act. That becomes problematic in the second act when it’s clear that Jackson regrets the dissolution of the relationship.
Scenes of the two in Atlanta are contrasted with scenes of Finster’s rural Summerville home, and the play falls into the trap of allowing this to become a familiar dichotomy: the city as a dark, discombobulating, false, destructive environment and the country as a wise, spiritual, intuitive and authentic one.
Actor George Contini creates a complicated Finster, but somehow the relationship between Finster and Sherer never really develops a beating heart. The two aren’t together alone on stage enough, and we don’t see enough of what bonds them. They are both artists, both outsiders, both story-tellers, and they share a sense of the ridiculous. These are all suggested but aren’t threaded throughout the action.
Contini’s Finster also seems too friendly, wholesome and lucid. What’s missing is the “out there” quality and the obsessive artistic drive. The play makes occasional mention that Finster was something of a loner, considered crazy and difficult by many of the people around him, but he seems pretty pleasant for most of the show. The play also only briefly, in one of its best scenes, suggests a shared sense of surreal humor, when the two characters speak to each other through shoes held as telephones. Artists and outsiders often share a sense of playfulness, which can be a powerful bond, but this illustrative scene comes only toward the end, almost right before Campbell-Taylor’s final exit.
Trading stories creates common ground, but we don’t see enough of it. The stories the two share about their similar backgrounds suggest some connection, but they are too rapid-fire and to the point. Southern storytellers tell long tales that gradually reveal the oddness of human nature, but the stories in the play seem almost like anecdotes with punch lines.
Some of the challenges of approaching such a polarizing issue as “faith or no faith” haven’t been overcome here. Finster’s fundamentalist religious belief and Sherer’s atheism and homosexuality create conflict, but not a drama full of existential, metaphysical questions. The central point seems to be that Finster’s religious belief didn’t allow him to have a complicated and modern sense of Sherer’s humanity, though his lived experience and artistic outlook did. Their artistic bond would seem to offer a more thoughtful, compelling crucible than Finster’s fundamentalism. In some cases, autobiography trumps the habits of outlook, which are the more obvious roadblocks.
The play has the elements of a great story, great scenes and great characters, but an overarching narrative pull is missing. We often feel that we’re floating and drifting, rather than driven and pulled through the story. Adam Fiddler as meta-character “The Stranger,” a colorful angel vision straight out of Finster’s work, does a fine job, but an imaginary character pulls us away from the story of the two real people.
What humanizes people on stage isn’t their faith or lack of it; it’s their openness to others. Finster apparently had an openness to humor, to experience, to art, to certain people, and we don’t see enough of that. Their shared sense of art, their humor and storytelling, would have made a compelling case for how these seemingly very different characters bridged a divide and connected. But right now, we’re hearing too much of a familiar story — “The good Reverend picks up a stray” — when there’s a better story still hidden and waiting.