It seems almost axiomatic that a play about religion in our time can't really be about traditional religion. Heather McDonald's "An Almost Holy Picture," a vehicle for the gifted Kevin Bacon to make a welcome return to the New York stage, concerns the spiritual quest of Samuel, a groundskeeper for a church. The images that bring him to his moment of revelation, however, are largely pagan. The ideas about the divine Samuel discusses come from the Hopi Indians, who believed spiritual knowledge comes from loss, and from Inez, a Hispanic woman he knew in the New Mexican desert. A peasant who grows beans and garlic and makes great salsa, Inez describes her relationship with God as one in which "I abuse him and he abuses me back."
What brings Samuel to his own understanding of divinity concerns his daughter, who is born with a rare, mysterious condition in which "fine, silky hair" covers her body. At one point, Samuel compares his daughter, Ariel, with Laura, the invalid daughter in Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie."
His wife is rehearsing the play. There is, however, a major difference. Laura, suffering from pleurisy, is doomed. Ariel, despite her awkward condition, is a bright, sunny child. But her father, without understanding what he is doing, makes her self-conscious about the condition he and his wife have worked so hard to help her overcome. His moment of rage makes Ariel suddenly see herself the pitiful way others see her. If it brings pain to her, it brings even greater loss to him. Through loss, he comes closer to God. Bacon has a resonant voice that makes the play's abundant images vivid. Instead of the boyish looks he had when he appeared often here in the early '80s, his face now has an angular, almost gaunt quality that seems right for someone on a spiritual quest. Bacon makes us care about Samuel, and the play has been strikingly designed and lit. If "Picture" is not totally satisfying, it is because its images are largely cerebral. We can understand the loss but not the spiritual gain that theoretically accompanies it.
A voice in the wilderness -- well, actually it's in a cranberry bog on Cape Cod -- is sounded early in ''An Almost Holy Picture,'' Heather McDonald's sticky poem of a play at the American Airlines Theater. As such voices will, this one delivers a command: ''Follow me.''
For the rest of the evening, Samuel Gentle, a former minister, will work vigorously and despairingly at heeding that mysterious voice, which he heard as a child and which he presumes belongs to God. But it's another version of the same request that is most arresting in this production from the Roundabout Theater Company.
That comes from Kevin Bacon, who plays Samuel in the drama, which opened last night under the direction of Michael Mayer. Mr. Bacon is also always saying, silently but insistently, ''Follow me.''
It's what all actors implicitly demand of their audiences. Few, however, face the challenges confronted by Mr. Bacon, who returns to the New York theater after two decades of work in film.
Mr. Bacon is the entire cast of a play that wanders sonorously for more than two hours through a thicket of earnest whimsy and religious head-scratching. (John Dosset plays the part on selected Wednesday and Sunday matinees.) It is to the actor's vast credit that you are willing to follow him for as long as you do.
Religious faith, and its slipperiness, is the subject of ''An Almost Holy Picture,'' which has received several previous productions in other parts of the country. But it's the conviction of a lone performer, daring to take on a big Broadway house, that gives the show what genuine emotional hold it has.
For Mr. Bacon radiates a solid, scrupulous belief in his material that any playwright should envy. His Samuel says at one point that he has the ''habit of reverence,'' and it is reverence that Mr. Bacon brings to the stage.
His performance is sincerely modest, engagingly free of diversionary fireworks and grandstanding. You trust him because he so clearly trusts in what he's saying.
Whether you will leave the theater feeling that trust has been entirely warranted is another matter. Ms. McDonald writes in a confident, hypnotic style, woven from simple, cadenced prose and slightly off-center details, that initially lulls you into acceptance.
But despite Mr. Bacon's best efforts, you eventually wake up to the realization that ''Picture'' isn't really covering much ground. Samuel Gentle's spiritual odyssey may take him from Massachussetts to New Mexico and back. But it turns out that what he needs to discover has always been close at hand, within him. Those of us who know ''The Wizard of Oz'' are way ahead of him on that one.
In the meantime, there is lots of solemnly eccentric scenery to look at. The tale that Samuel recounts suggests John Irving, with a pinch of Russell Banks, after a few sessions with Deepak Chopra. Samuel leaves his ministry outside of Santa Fe after nine children are drowned in a church bus accident (shades of Mr. Banks's ''Sweet Hereafter'').
He returns to New England, marries a professor of anthropology named Miriam and becomes the groundskeeper for a local church. More adversity soon descends.
Miriam has three miscarriages before giving birth to a daughter with lanugo, a rare disease in which the body is covered entirely in fine hair. The rest of the monologue follows the first nine years in the life of his daughter, named Ariel, and Samuel's Job-like contemplation of her affliction.
It would seem to be a propitious moment for ''Picture'' to come to New York, a city that has recently known monumental trials. Audience members who are pursuing their own quests for spiritual comfort in the face of loss and destruction will surely find elements here that resonate for them.
There is, for example, Samuel's anger with a young doctor who has the ''confident carriage'' of someone who has not yet known grief. And there is a finely observed account of the aftermath of the bus accident in New Mexico, which contradicts ''the romantic belief that tragedy binds people together.''
Other descriptions will cause shudders among those with a low tolerance for the self-conscious quirkiness associated with Mr. Irving's fiction. Samuel, like many devoted parents, spends much time recounting his daughter's precocious wisdom (on subjects like blue whales and hummingbirds).
His consideration of the forms that faith assumes embraces everything from a gleaming Thunderbird to ritualistically arranged jars of salsa verde. Samuel's garden metaphors are, however pertinent, wearisome, while the big confrontation with his daughter, over some arty photographs, simply feels forced.
And his ruminations on watching an amateur performance of ''The Glass Menagerie'' are downright embarrassing. Read on, if you dare: ''The gentleman caller arrives representing the long-delayed but always expected something we live for that will come into our lives and change everything.''
Mr. Bacon's performance, however, provides no occasions for wincing. This actor has found the key to his character in Samuel's humility, which is rendered with unlikely but seductive charisma.
Imitating other people or exploding into uncharacteristic curse words, Samuel is appealingly apologetic. He is not, in other words, a natural stand-up artist. Mr. Bacon is especially good in the evening's most excitingly written and staged scene, a sleepwalking sequence in which daytime normalcy is fragmented by night's distortions.
Mr. Mayer has done admirably in playing to his star's strengths and in keeping Mr. Bacon in motion without overdoing it. And no playwright making her Broadway debut could ask for a better-looking production than the Roundabout has given ''Picture.''
Kevin Adams's cosmic lighting richly enhances the evening's changes in tone, while Mark Wendland's set cannily summons the dirtscapes of Samuel Beckett's wastelands. Not that Ms. McDonald's play withstands such comparisons.
Beckett created a purely theatrical language for celebrating the hope in human hopelessness. Ms. McDonald has provided what ultimately amounts to a poetic laundry list of credos, talismans and quaint anecdotes. The ingredients don't add up to an authentic portrait. But Mr. Bacon's sheer belief that they do takes you farther than anyone could reasonably hope.
Even before the lights go down, it's become clear that the almost interminable play "An Almost Holy Picture" has deep things on its mind. Those scene titles in the program are a dead giveaway: "Sighs Too Deep for Words" and "The Grace of Daily Obligation" in act one, just for starters. There are also the quotations from Pablo Neruda, Jacob wrestling with the angel and good old Anonymous adorning the credits page ("light travels as mystery travels/on the edge of faith," says Anonymous -- and by the way, since when did that prolific poet begin to eschew proper rules of capitalization?).
Yep, Heather McDonald's earnest, self-consciously poetic play purports to have much profound wisdom to impart on the subject of nebulous things like grace, faith and the mystery of God's absence. But for all its determined soulfulness, the play still lacks a real soul, despite a hardworking performance by Kevin Bacon in the play's single role.
Bacon, of whom we get far more than six degrees here -- in fact we get two full hours -- plays Samuel Gentle, a preternaturally well-spoken church groundskeeper and a man whose faith has been sorely tested by a series of tragic circumstances. Addressing the audience from atop the mound of earth that is the centerpiece of Mark Wendland's architecturally attractive set, he cites three events that have "shaped my personal idea of God."
The most benign of these is a voice heard whispering in a cranberry bog in his youth. Next up is a ghoulish bus accident. Samuel was involved with a youth camp in New Mexico when an outing ended in tragedy: Swerving to avoid a child running across the street with her hair on fire (a commonplace nuisance?), the driver plunged the bus into a culvert, resulting in the drowning deaths of nine children.
Hair is also a motif in circumstance No. 3, the birth of Samuel's only child. Age 9 at the time of the story's narration, Ariel (you were expecting Tiffany?) was born with an incurable condition called lanugo, which leaves the face and body covered with fine hair. Samuel describes his struggles to come to terms with his family's misfortune and to reconcile it with an idea of an active God.
This phase of the play has authentic poignance, to be sure, and Bacon's reserved, crisp performance and Michael Mayer's unobtrusive direction creditably undersell it. But mild poignance isn't enough for McDonald: The playwright aims to convert the audience into a big puddle of reverence.
As Samuel keeps talking, we become painfully aware of her meticulous attempts to thus liquefy us, to manufacture meaning and effect by layering image upon image, mixing theological ruminations with earthy asides, carefully deploying recurring motifs and employing stylistic tics such as the incantatory repetition of certain phrases. At times the gentle Mr. Gentle even seems to be speaking in haiku ("Of all the legacies left me by my father/The habit of reverence has been/The most lasting/The most nourishing").
The result is a piece of writing that feels sculpted and collated rather than inspired. McDonald's strenuous literary efforts overwhelm a potentially moving story about a young man and his family struggling to come to terms with an unhappy predicament. The play dissolves into a soberly sentimental, non-denominational blur of words, a long, very highbrow episode of "Touched by an Angel." (Indeed, McDonald posits a heavenly interloper in the form of a backward, cigarette-smoking boy named Angel Martinez, who is central to the incident that dominates the play's second act.)
In the end this viewer was left not wiping away tears but, uh, sighing sighs too deep for words.