Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 831

Father William Doherty

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Father William Doherty, a sixty-five-year-old mission priest who controls his flock with wit, deception, and persistent hope to elevate their lives. He displays a brittle, self-effacing humor, masking a strong will that results in his major conflict with Don Tabaha. A romantic who is fond of quoting romantic verse, Father Doherty sees the world as transitory and humans by nature as good; he has always maintained a “willing suspension of disbelief” about his life’s role that makes him sympathetic to artists. These attitudes allow him to dismiss nuclear catastrophes that occur a few miles away. His great fault is his vanity in wanting Don, his surrogate son, to follow him in his mission.

Don Tabaha

Don Tabaha, a half Indian in his mid-twenties who was reared by his aunt (the mission’s caretaker) and Father Doherty. Don is split in half by more than his racial background. Although he realizes his duty to help the American Indians as their doctor, he also is aware that he could venture into the city as a research specialist. To complicate matters, Don has a love/hate relationship with Father Doherty, his father figure. All this tension has made Don surly, yet he exhibits a natural inclination to doctor: He tries to go to the mine to treat the injured, he correctly diagnoses Niles Harris’ hypoglycemia, and he warns Zappy about getting arthritis from lying on the floor. His name, Tabaha, means “by-the-river” in Navajo; it fits Don, who is at a major crossing point in his life between duty to those he loves and self-fulfillment.

Niles Harris

Niles Harris, a fifty-six-year-old neurotic art historian and professor from Rhode Island on his way to a private sanatorium in Arizona. Niles Harris’ wit is matched by that of Father Doherty, who is his counterpart in many respects. Harris, borrowing from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, announces early in the play that he has lost his ability to continue a “willing suspension of disbelief.” He also quotes Blaise Pascal in French that makes him sound almost pedantic; he is rescued from pedantry by his own self-deprecation. Although he says that the source of his despair is his lost faith in his writing and teaching, later in the play he reveals that he suffered a severe loss when his brightest student committed suicide. Harris shares Father Doherty’s fault of investing his vanity in a protégé. By the play’s end, Harris appears improved as a result of Don Tabaha’s ministrations and his argument with Father Doherty over Don’s decision that allows him insight into his own problems.

Vita Harris

Vita Harris, the thirty-year-old, strikingly handsome wife of Niles Harris. True to her first name, she is a life source for Niles. She helps him to cope with his anguish in a quiet way that counteracts the abrasiveness of the other characters. Vita comments on the actions of the others but does not judge them. Rather, she shares Father Doherty’s view that the world is transitory and that such problems as nuclear disasters and disposing of her dead father’s many antiques are not on the same level of importance as saving Niles’s sanity or rebelling against the status quo. Vita was Niles’s student and now is a writer of children’s books, so she understands both sides of the debate between Father Doherty and Niles. At the end, Vita, a lapsed Catholic, remains to hear Mass.

Marion Clay

Marion Clay, an attractive art gallery owner in her early forties. She is undergoing a major change in her life because of the death of her artist husband, Branch. Unlike Niles or Don, Marion handles change without the problem of betraying her calling. Always the realist, she encourages others but knows that her career is to be their caretaker. Her affair with Zappy is almost motherly. Marion Clay is as basic as her last name implies, but with a dignity that Father Doherty admires. Like Vita, Marion offers support to others who need it without claim of return, because she has sure faith in herself and her calling.

Salvatore “Zappy” Zappala

Salvatore “Zappy” Zappala, a twenty-one-year-old tennis pro and Marion Clay’s lover. At first, Zappy appears to be the comic relief to the play. Nervous and hypochondriac, he goes into a near faint as Don relates the illnesses that the American Indians get. Fear of drinking the local water forces him to drink a thermos of martinis and get progressively more drunk. Living up to the meaning of his first name, Salvatore, he supplies the saving revelations in the play. He hears the status of the uranium mine disaster and the road’s accessibility on his radio and informs the others. He supplies a vivid example for Father Doherty’s lesson on vocation by narrating his discovery of a natural talent at tennis. Zappy is Don’s counterpart to the degree that he is following his calling without a quandary.

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