Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Lilies of the Field
Open Window Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent review of A Jumping Off Point and The Guthrie's Henriad in Repertory:Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V

Chris Jimmy and Cast
Photo by Up North Creative
In F. Andrew Leslie's play The Lilies of the Field, based on the 1962 novel by William E. Barrett, Homer Smith is an African American man honorably discharged from military service. He has purchased a beat-up station wagon, sets it up so he can sleep inside, and takes off to travel the country, heading to the Southwest. When he needs money he picks up work, using skills he acquired in the army, then journeys on. He doesn't have a plan other to maintain his independence, which, for a Black man in 1949, is a fraught question. The play is now running in a heartfelt, beautifully rendered production at Open Window Theatre, their 2023-2024 season closer.

Smith drives into a parched Arizona valley and happens upon a small convent in which lives Mother Maria and four nuns, all central European refugees. Homer stops, seeking a drink of water, but Mother Maria believes he has been sent by God in answer to her prayers for a big, strong man to do the work that is desperately needed on their ramshackle settlement. Homer resists this notion, but finally agrees to stay long enough to fix their roof, provided he gets paid. He insists (here and several times during the play) that nobody owns him, that he is a free man.

Herein lies the rub: the convent has no money. Mother Maria avoids saying this at first, but offers Homer lodging and to share their meager meals with him. Finally, Homer sees that he is not going to be paid for the work he has done, even as Mother Maria reveals far greater ambitions for Homer than merely to repair the roof. In an attempt to win her to his position, he draws on a source he knows she will understand, the bible, quoting from Luke 10:7: "The laborer is worthy of his hire." Mother Maria counters with a quote of her own, taken from the Sermon on the Mount: "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I say unto you that even Solomon, in all his glory, was not arrayed like one of these."

That quote not only states Mother Maria's argument, but lent Barrett the name for his novel, and then for the 1963 film adaptation (for which Sidney Poitier made history as the first African American actor to win a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Homer Smith), and Leslie's subsequent play that appeared in 1967. Mother Maria seems to be extolling Homer to be more like those lilies, to bask in the beauty that is in their nature, and not based on things money can buy.

But hers is a simplistic argument. Homer is not a man desiring self-adornment and aggrandizement. He seeks only simple pleasures, the greatest of which for him is to guarantee his freedom. After this duel of biblical reference points, Homer spends the remainder of the two-act play trying to balance two outlooks on life: to earn wages through honest labor, not to excess, but enough to ensure his continued freedom; or to live without want as a lily of the field, his peace and contentment stemming from the inner seed from which his bloom emerges.

Open Window's production, directed by Kari Steinbach, joyfully animates the facets of this play–its deeply expressed meditation on faith, the robustly comic interplay between Homer and Mother Maria, who insists on pronouncing his surname, Smith, as the German variant, "Schmidt," to his chagrin. There is also a sensitive depiction of a man of color treading lightly to avoid the dangers he faces travelling alone through rural America, while remaining clear in his self-regard when it comes under scrutiny, as when a prospective employer–a white man–comes out to meet him and is visibly startled, saying with a stammer "I expected a different ... type of man," or when a Hispanic man hesitates before shaking Homer's outstretched hand. The play also celebrates the joy of community, as the nuns come to adore Homer–their "Schmidt"–as he lifts their spirits with English lessons, singing, and guitar playing.

Music is an important element of the production. A folk singer, Ryan Lee, is positioned at one or another corner of the stage and, as the audience is settling down and the lights dim, sings several old-school songs of the road, along the lines of Woody Guthrie; in fact, a couple of Guthrie's songs are among the set. Lee also sings during scene transitions, and offers a gentle entr'acte before the second act. His voice is warm and husky, reminiscent of Gordon Lightfoot. Lee is costumed in a beat up, once respectable suit jacket, the seam torn at one shoulder, and a rumpled fedora, taking on the look of a traveler whose luck–so far–has stayed a step ahead of hard times. With Lee's musical contributions, Homer's guitar playing and singing, and a sampling of the nuns singing hymns in choral harmony, the entire production conveys the feeling of a calm port in the stormy world in which, in 2024, we reside.

Steinbach has a sure hand with the narrative and with the characters, directing them to create authentically human interactions. Beyond that, the production soars in large part due to its two leads, Chris Jimmy as Homer and Michelle Myers Berg as Mother Maria. Jimmy is persuasively good-hearted as he defies his own common sense and rises to the expectations of this stranded band eking out their living on faith. Jimmy's performance allows us to witness his growing understanding that being a free man doesn't have to mean being detached. Berg conveys Mother Maria's stern demeanor and fierce determination, born in confidence in her ability to bring forth action from her faith. Even at her most stubborn, though, Berg illuminates Mother Maria with a glint of the affection in which she holds her charges, the four nuns, as well as her growing admiration for Homer.

José Sabillón, phenomenal in the title role in Open Window's Dante's Inferno last fall, is endearing in the supporting role of Jose Gonzales, who befriends Homer and acts as a kind of cultural translator between Homer and the largely Hispanic community. Peter Colburn gives a solid performance as a businessman who has tried to wean Mother Maria from his financial support but is won over anew by Homer's enterprise. Steven Ramirez has a warm presence as Father Gomez, the parish priest who serves as the play's narrator, though it would have been good if playwright Leslie had relied less on narration and allowed us to see for ourselves some of what we are told. Gillian Constable, Anna Leverett, Anna Olson, and Abby Slater play the four nuns. Each gives their character unique qualities while conveying a rapport that presents them as a close-knit sisterhood.

Open Window has a consistent team of artists designing their physical productions, and all do reliably solid work here. Robin McIntyre's set design offers Homer's "house-on-wheels" station wagon on one side of the stage, and on the other side, impressive details in the convent's dining room and the homey café where Homer goes to relish a "man's meal" after making do with the convent's skimpy fare. Jeremy Stanbary's video graphic projections enhance the set by establishing the larger context for each scene. Stanbary's sound design, Nate Farley's props design–including a full-size bathtub–and Sue Berger's lighting design serve the production well, though I would have loved to see Homer's car's lights go on when he, accompanied by the sound of the engine, is mean to be driving away from the convent.

Those who fondly recall the 1963 movie, or perhaps the 1962 novel, will no doubt enjoy reconnecting with The Lilies of the Field in Open Window's luminous production. Those who have not already encountered the story will be greatly rewarded by making its acquaintance. The play is framed as a legend from the start, with Father Gomez laying that foundation in his opening narration.

Unlike many stories considered to be legends, nothing in The Lilies of the Field defies credulity. It could have all happened just as the play shows us. The notion of that much goodness and tenacity available within a random, footloose man, someone like Homer Smith, waiting to be called forth and make a difference in the world, is about the most heartening message I have encountered in a very long time.

The Lilies of the Fieldruns through May 26, 2024 at Open Window Theatre, 5300 S Robert Trail, Inver Grove Heights, MN. For information call 612-615-1515 or go to

Playwright: F. Andrew Leslie, adapted from the novel by William E. Barrett; Director: Kari Steinbach; Set Design, Scenic Artist: Robin McIntyre; Costume Design: Robert Graff; Lighting Design: Sue Berger; Sound and Video Graphics Design: Jeremy Stanbary; Props Design: Nate Farley; Music: Ryan Lee; Stage Manager: Lauren Volkart; Producer: Jeremy Stanbary.

Cast: Michelle Myers Berg (Mother Maria Marthe), Peter Colburn (Orville Livingston), Gillian Constable (Sister Albertine), Chris Jimmy (Homer Smith), Ryan Lee (Folksinger), Anna Leverett (Sister Gertrude), Anna Olson (Sister Elizabeth), Steven Ramirez (Father Gomez), José Sabillón (Jose Gonzales), Abby Slater (Sister Agnes).