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Staging Spiritual Life Stages An Act Of Love For Colorful Quinns

The black box stage of the Touchstone Theatre is lined with a series of colorful, hand-painted, silk-screened scenery flats that are 8 feet high and covered with symbolic drawings.

Intricate Arabic calligraphy hints at secret meaning. The three-member cast, dressed in brilliantly colored flowing silk-screened robes, flip the screens back and forth, revealing new layers of mystical symbolism.

A high-tech musical score echoes through the theater, adding to the heightened expectations of the audience.

For the next 75 minutes, the Quinn family -- Marty, Wendy and their 14-year-old daughter Caitlyn -- take the audience on a spiritual journey through the seven stages of life of the Baha'i faith. The journey will make stops in the Valleys of Search, Love, Knowledge, Unity, Contentment, Wonderment and True Poverty and Absolute Nothingness.

Touchstone Theatre is known for its avant-garde theater. Its audiences are not seeking an easy theatrical fix, and "The Seven Valleys," which will be presented today and tomorrow at the Bethlehem theater, is an exotic, intellectual performance art piece with spiritual overtones.

A faith-based drama, it is an absorbing combination of musical moments and eloquent poetry based on a 19th-century adaptation of a 12th-century poem written by Persian nobleman Mirza Husayn 'Ali later known as Baha'u'llah, the prophet founder of the Baha'i Faith. "The Seven Valleys" describes his spiritual journey.

The Quinns, who live in New Hampshire, have been Baha'is for more than 30 years. They wrote this play as a vehicle to explain their faith. Their use of modern music technology and synthesizers creates a musical score that soothes, energizes and intrigues.

Wendy Quinn, who had a previous career as a Soho performance artist, compares the piece to classical Greek literature. "As in Homer's "Odyssey,' the traveler must pass through many spiritual trials before reaching his "heavenly homeland,"' she says.

Her husband, Marty Quinn, who is more outgoing than his wife, and a professional drummer who has toured in the national touring company of "Godspell," says the play "is like a Broadway show using Shakespeare's language."

Both go on to describe their piece as a "meditation-like experience," a "spiritual chocolate cake" with "awesome music, drumming and dance."

To someone not familiar with the Baha'i faith, the performance is an injection of tranquility, a sampling of the charismatic appeal of this 19th-century religion based on the universality of a Persian mystic's message.

That the Quinns are sincere and committed to their religion is undeniable. That this sincerity translates into theater is another matter. Suffice to say that what they do produce is a strangely satisfying and disarming moment of stress-free entertainment.

Acting and performing is not a full-time occupation for the Quinns. Marty is a software engineer and Wendy has a full-time psychology practice. They schedule these joint family theatrical appearances to coincide with their daughter's school vacations.

"My patients think I am on a vacation in the sun, or in the Caribbean," jokes Wendy Quinn, a soft-spoken woman who exudes serenity. "This is the fourth time we have come to Bethlehem, but usually we come during the summer."

Both the adult Quinns have extensive theater, dance and music backgrounds. Caitlyn has studied dance and theater her entire life.

This is the second program they have performed at Touchstone. Their first, "The Magic Bird," was also based on their Baha'i faith. Each time they have asked Bill George to direct them.

Their longtime friendship with Bill and Bridget George, Touchstone founders, is based on common interests -- their mutual Baha'i faith and their love of performance theater.

"Working with the Quinns is a natural for me," explains Bill. "I have a history of working on original movement theater and spiritually based works. This is a show that appealed to me. It has terrific music. It delves deep into Persian art and Persian symbolism. To me, this is as intoxicating as listening to Mozart."

"The Seven Valleys" will be performed at 9 p.m today and Saturday at the Touchstone Theatre, 321 E. Fourth. St., Bethlehem. Tickets: $10. 610-837-2741.

Myra Yellin Outwater is a free-lance writer.

Arts Editor Jodi Duckett


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