Mary Lou Quinlan’s book of the same name is a New York Times bestseller, its success sealed with Oprah’s approval. But as a play it is saccharine sweet and just too nice (yes, nice) to engage with – for all its ‘true story’ credentials.
Nothing really happens. Quinlan rehearses fluffy anecdotes belonging to her sheltered childhood as Mom’s best friend. ‘More,’ Mom would say to her; ‘More,’ she’d reply. ‘More’. ‘More.’ ‘I love you more.’ ‘No, I love you more.’
Similarly, ‘Hands on’. ‘Hands on’. So they high-five the telephone receiver, mimic their ongoing connection across miles.
Notwithstanding the tragedy of losing both her parents to the big C, and Quinlan’s admirable CV printed in the programme (which includes her ‘groundbreaking research on women’s lives’), Quinlan waxes lyrical about her uneventful childhood with the rapture of a lovelorn teen. Not once did she give any hint of argument, disagreement or difference of opinion between herself and either one of her parents. Surely even grief does not put on glasses so rose-tinted. If it really was that perfect, well, it’s sad but true that it doesn’t make theatre.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that the God Box of the title is an unremarkable wicker basket, that fits into the palm of Quinlan’s hand – one of ten similar pots found after Mom’s death. It contains prayers written out for everyone who attracted her concern. And The God Box is now a project raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support. So the production has a worthy purpose which can only be admired – but the project isn’t what I’m here to review.
Much is made of Mom’s habit of scribbling requests to God on scraps of paper: ‘every wish, worry, decision, molehill, mountain’, then putting them in the box and ‘letting them go’. Lisa (Mom’s cleaner – we don’t know much more than this about her), Mary Lou and her brother Jack, and their father Ray feature large in Mom’s prayers. However there doesn’t seem to be any follow up; once the prayers are ‘let go’ and in the Box, they are considered to be in God’s hands. There is no evidence that God ever responds – this would be a good story – but still her faith spurs Mom on.
A solo show is not an easy thing to pull off. Quinlan is billed as an actor/writer, but she appears stronger at the latter than the former, and an hour is quite a long time to watch her walking from one side of the stage to the other, gesticulating. Some pleasant slides of the boxes and old family photos are put up on the screen behind her, but overall dramatic tension is nil.