Lea Ann Douglas has spent more than a year writing and researching her new play, The Neophyte, which opens next weekend at the Helms Theater. An M.F.A. student in UVA’s Drama Department, Douglas first got the idea for the mysterious courtroom drama from a television news segment.
In the late 1990s a man— now on death row— killed a young boy camping with his family in Northern California. He then moved to Los Angeles where he murdered a woman before being apprehended by authorities. After numerous tests and interviews, psychologists and psychiatrists declared him sane and responsible for his actions, though the defense argued that he was unfit to stand trial.
Douglas has taken the kernel of that story and crafted a script that asks many searching questions. The killer, Oscar Telford, is a 23-year-old messiah figure who hears the voice of God and somehow intuits the most vulnerable moments in the lives of people he meets. In the play, Telford's strongest connection is with Graine Goodwin, one of his attorneys, who has recently lost her devout father and who envies Telford's direct relationship with the divine. Goodwin, played by Victoria Joyce, takes personally her mission to win Telford’s release.
Artistic director Doug Grissom, who has worked as Douglas' advisor for the script, sees the production as a workshop. He and Douglas continue to consult about scenes and to make small changes in dialogue and character.
Douglas chose the title for the show after seeing a 19th century painting by Dore depicting a group of monks in fervent prayer. One young monk stands in front of the others with his hand extended, smiling. "He just seems to 'get it'," Douglas says. "The others are trying so hard to ask for answers, and he just knows."
It may be hard for most of us to think of a man who murders a nine-year-old in a convenience store bathroom as having received that message from God. Douglas knows that and has not shied away from critically examining the strange phenomenon of the situation she has built the play around. She purposely plays with difficult ideas, with paradoxes, and with questions that do not have easy answers. The result is a rather intense and mysterious script that forces us to think hard about what we think we know.
The Neophyte plays April 18-21 in the Helms Theater, 109 Culbreth Road. Thursday-Saturday at 8pm. Sunday at 2pm. $5. 924-3376.