Daily Archives: September 14, 2014
Miracles in the Fall – Polarity Ensemble Theatre
Bravo to this marvelous theatre company for being one of Chicago’s foremost advocates of original works by local playwrights. It’s important to showcase the work of a fresh, innovative new writer for so many reasons. By premiering his play for Chicago audiences, a playwright has the opportunity to learn from their response. Often he’s finally able to see and hear his work come to life on a stage for the first time, as it was intended, which is quite different from merely hearing it read aloud. By observing an audience a playwright can determine whether laughs are landing correctly or if the drama is truly hitting home. Reading critics‘ reviews is another way in which to monitor the success of his play, for it’s a whole other audience’s responses to the production, as a whole.
Chuck O’Connor’s play is obviously a very personal work set in 1968 Detroit during the World Series and following the city’s turbulent racial riots. It lives and breathes within a nation divided by the politics of the Vietnamese War and is stoked by the controversy created by Vatican Two’s modernization of the Catholic service. Into this world he brings four characters and their intertwining story.
Clare Connelly is a nun who teaches biology at a parochial school. While challenged by her students, Clare must care for and do battle with Jimmy, her alcoholic Irish widower father. Charlie, Clare’s younger brother, who’s been off fighting in the war, suddenly returns one day unannounced. During the time he was away their mother died and his father began spiraling into an abyss of self-destruction. Clare’s been doing everything possible to maintain balance and still keep her father on the straight and narrow. However Jimmy Connelly’s cantankerous nature, his mysterious bitterness toward his wife’s memory, his all-encompassing racial hatred and his condemnation of changes in the Catholic Church are defeating Clare’s efforts. Amid her family’s turmoil Clare eventually finds the courage to confess her anger, her own needs and her self doubts about the path she’s chosen that even young Father Lentine can’t assuage.
O’Connor’s play is a battleground fueled by unanswered questions and filled with unrelenting hatred and shouting. Rare is the moment when poor Sister Clare ever stops wringing her hands and cracks a smile. The woman desperately clings to her faith like it’s a life raft caught in a maelstrom. It almost becomes too much for even the audience to endure. Act I eventually ends on a promising note, but after first witnessing so much frustration and anguish the audience’s ready to join Jimmy for a much-needed drink. Act II is better-written and offers more emotional variety and, despite one more tragedy, a feeling that all the previous darkness will someday be rewarded in a bright, new dawn.
This is ultimately Sister Clare’s story, and Laura Berner Taylor plays the nun with strength and determination. The problem is that audiences only ever see that one side of this character; there are very few constrasting moments showing her as vulnerable, joyous or anything other than angry and defeated. Audiences will certainly sympathize with the character (and possibly the actress), but mostly because her portrayal is all one level. This character is obviously the glue that binds this story together, but it would be nice to find some quieter times, just for variety. When Ms. Taylor momentarily drops her guard and shares a few private thoughts with handsome, charismatic Father Lentine, the play and this character finally becomes three-dimensional. Until that time it’s just one constant barrage of rancor and shouting.
Rian Jairell brings a quirky, youthful approach to Father Lentine. He delivers the most honest performance of the production and, as such, is a much-welcome presence in every scene he’s in. Mr. Jairell provides a realistic, priestly balance of wisdom and empathy with the other characters, yet he makes Father Lentine’s own backstory just as interesting as the Connelly drama. Mickey O’Sullivan has some genuine, realistic moments as young Charlie, but his sudden explosion of anger near the end of the play seems incongruous and to erupt out of nowhere. Mr. O’Sullivan’s best scenes are during a tumultuous family dinner in which he tries to keep the peace. Fred A. Wellisch, however, plays Irish patriarch Jimmy Connelly in all one key: loud. While his dialect isn’t always consistent, it’s enough for this role. What is most annoying is the actor’s choice (and partly the playwright’s decision) to make Jimmy so flat and limiting. Without any contrast or diversity, the audience can’t establish any kind of emotional relationship with this character and he becomes merely a symbol of antagonism, instead of a real person. Ironically, Mr. Wellisch’s best moment is his final, silent entrance in the last scene.
Richard Shavzin does what he can in staging this play, especially considering the limited space allotted him in this tiny space. Charles C. Palia somewhat meets the script’s demands creating several different locales using furniture repositioning, but perhaps a more open space with simple shifts in lighting would’ve afforded Mr. Shavzin more room for his characters to live. The dinner table is particularly confining and provides a very limited acting opportunities for that scene.
Liv Morris wrote in Adam’s Fall that “hate is a disease, but love is its only cure.” This may well be the promise that finally saves Sister Clare and Father Lentine from their own personal hell and delivers the audience from all the despair found within the play’s two hour running time. While Chuck O’Connor’s drama has considerable merit it would benefit from a few minutes of happiness and an injection of some much-needed humor in which to balance all the anger and misery. That would be the miracle required in this Fall.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 3-October 5 by Polarity Ensemble Theatre at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-404-7336 or by going to www.petheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.