“For 16 years I have been the sole keeper of this city of the dead,” Father Damien says in 1889.
That “city” is the Kalaupapa Settlement, a leper colony on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, and Father Damien speaks from the grave. He was the settlement’s priest until he contracted leprosy himself and died among his parishioners.
Lamb’s Players Theatre’s producing artistic director Robert Smyth reprises Aldyth Morris’ one-man show “Damien” for the fourth time at Lamb’s (though he’s played Damien many more times than that). It runs through May 5 on the Lamb’s Coronado stage. Deborah Gilmour Smyth directs.
Leprosy (or Hansen’s disease, as it is now called) is no longer the frightening death sentence it once was – it is easily controlled with antibiotics. Neither is it easily transmitted, and 95% of humans are naturally immune to it.
But in the late 19th century, people with the disease were outcasts, removed from the general population and isolated. In Hawaii, this meant they were sent to the Kalaupapa Settlement on a desolate peninsula of the island of Molokai.
Father Damien was born Jozef De Veuster in Belgium to a family that produced three other clerics: two nuns and a priest. At the age of 24, Damien would up in Hawaii when he took his ailing brother’s place on a missionary trip there.
When he found the horrifying conditions under which leprosy victims were forced to live, he asked the bishop to make him their priest. This is his story.
Father Damien recounts his difficulty at first in dealing with the lepers: “It was three whole days before I could look at some of the lepers without revulsion, weeks before I could endure the graveyard smell” and tells of his run-ins with the bishop (who chides him for making no distinction between Catholic and non-Catholic lepers).
He talks of “Blind Petero” and his drum and fife corps and describes how they created instruments out of scrap iron, and how, in this literal death camp, they found joy: “A leper takes a long time dying and there is time for joy,” he says.
Father Damien was an inspiration. When he finally got some press recognition for his work (one even called him a martyr), he was appalled and asked the bishop if he could somehow put the kybosh on the publicity.
“Don’t they understand? I’m only doing my priestly duty as I see it.”
We don’t see much humility like that these days.
In keeping with the theme, the costumes (by Jeanne Reith) and set (by Michael McKeon) are simple, the props few.
Gilmour Smyth lets Damien and the playwright’s words speak for themselves.
“Damien” holds the theater’s record for most patron requests for a remount. If you haven’t seen it, here’s your chance.
"Damien" plays through May 5, 2013 at Lamb's Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Ave., Coronado.
Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 4 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm.
Tickets: (619) 437-6000 or HERE.
To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.