Through Sept. 11
Tiny Engine Theatre Company
@ North Raleigh Arts & Creative Theatre

Those who study acting and directing build upon their skills. Once they learn how to stage a monologue, they move on to scene work, and then full-length plays. Unfortunately, this Raleigh production of Creature is clearly stuck somewhere between the latter two. Though individual sequences amuse and occasionally move us in this Tiny Engine Theatre Company coproduction with North Raleigh Arts & Creative Theatre, they never truly cohere into a unified or satisfying whole.

We’re sympathetic with playwright Heidi Schreck’s attempts to reimagine the life of English mystic Margery Kempe through a more contemporary lens. We’re just never convinced she’s the willful but childish flibbertigibbet—a fourteenth-century cross between Lucy Ricardo and Elle Woods—that Laurel Ullman, in her first directing gig with Tiny Engine, renders with noted actor Liz Webb. Also problematic is Christopher Bynum’s descent into camp as the poorly defined Asmodeus, a demon who torments and tempts Kempe.

Such outlandish characters find day-to-night contrast in David Byron Hudson’s solid work as the humble, fretful Father Thomas, the unfortunate priest on whom Kempe fixates as her confessor and mentor, and Jane Holding’s thoroughly down-to-earth (and thoroughly Southern) Juliana of Norwich, an anchoress and mystic of Kempe’s era.

In Schreck’s text, all three spiritual leaders are openly baffled by large parts of their religious experiences. When Kempe first discloses that God has told her that only love can win what it wills, and Thomas asks her what that means, Kempe simply replies, “I don’t know. You’re the priest.” In a world where heresy is punishable by death, Juliana, Thomas, and, finally, Kempe, wrestle with the implications of their insights.

Actors Ryan Ladue and Lazarus Simmons don’t fully develop their respective supporting roles as John, Kempe’s exasperated husband, and Jacob, a young villager who believes in Kempe. But Kirsten Ehlert is convincing as the bewildered nurse who braves Kempe’s distemper before struggling with her own beliefs. Still, unsolved staging problems in a scene involving hazelnuts, cryptic song verses left unexplored mid-show, and awkward technical transitions on John Paul Middlesworth’s rudimentary set added to the jagged, broken pavement before Creature petered out in the final scene.

Mysticism is the spiritual equivalent of flipping ahead to the end of the book; it leapfrogs over the gradual, everyday accumulation of insights and experiences. After the intuitive flash, its subjects routinely take years, or a lifetime, catching up with what they already know. In Creature, Schreck’s visionaries repeatedly ask the childhood road-trip question, “Are we there yet?” No wonder they’re frustrated as they ponder scriptural road maps that all of them must finish drawing for themselves.