Chicago Theatre Review
Wrestling with an Angel
Body and Blood – Gift Theatre
The co-founder of Gift Theatre, William Nedved’s latest play opens on one of those wooden back porches where Chicagoans enjoy dining al fresco, while a welcome breeze heralds the first warm spring day. Unfortunately, the winds off Lake Michigan can’t do anything to cool the shock, anger and indignation felt by his longtime, live-in girlfriend, Leah, when Dan announces that he’s suddenly decided to become a priest. His sister, Monica, and her husband, Mick, both Catholics of varying degrees of devotion, accept the news with equal part surprise and disbelief. When hiss mentor, Father Alex, drops by the apartment, Dan’s announcement becomes even more real. What prompted the young man’s life-changing decision? What’s Leah supposed to do? Where will Dan live now? Will the Bishop even forgive Dan’s sins and allow him into the priesthood? And if the Church won’t accept Monica and Mick’s young, gay son as a Catholic, how will the boy be able to make his First Communion?
This is an intriguing, thought-provoking play that raises a lot of uneasy questions. Nedved, however, shies away from providing any pat answers; he leaves it up to each theatergoer to judge Dan and his extended family. And, to make it even more interesting, each of these five characters offers his own surprise. Each is unpredictable with an unforeseen agenda and trajectory. Nedved’s play isn’t about earthshaking world problems, but it opens up all kinds of possibilities. The person you think you know may provide some expected surprises. We often think we understand those closest to us, but sometimes that knowledge is misguided and we’re surprised by the new paths our loved ones must travel.
Having recently directed Lookingglass Theatre’s successful, critically acclaimed “Title and Deed,” Marti Lyons joins the Gift to guide this talented cast. She does so with loving care, offering her own unique twists and inspiration to Nedved’s script. Working closely with set designer Joe Schermoly and lighting artist Michael Stanfill, Ms. Lyons creates a degree of subtle symbolism in her staging of the Act II. In addition, she brings out each character’s truth, allowing humor to fall from the unexpected honesty. It’s a wise director who understands and can achieve this skill.
There are no stars in this ensemble production, although Nicholas Harazin comes closest, as Dan. This conflicted young man, a goofball for most of his life, is seen by his family as someone who often lacks commitment. They’ve seen Dan ricochet between projects in the past, so his sudden decision to join the priesthood feels like just another new endeavor. Mr. Harazin plays Dan without faux force. He easily becomes the brunt of everyone’s jokes, while showing a man seething with confusion and hurt. It’s a deceptively difficult road to walk. Cyd Blakewell is exceptional as Leah, the girlfriend who fully expects Dan to propose marriage, not propose a breakup. How she copes with this unexpected news and the journey she takes is candid, straightforward, heartfelt acting, a skill few ever achieve. Ms. Blakewell is simply quite remarkable.
Equally remarkable in every roles she plays is Lynda Newton, as Monica. This actor has the ability to make everything she undertakes an extension of herself. As always, Ms. Newton is nothing short of brilliant. The subtle looks, the telling body language, the silences that say so much—all creates a character who stays with the audience, long after the final curtain. Stephen Spencer is solid as Mick, a caring young husband, father and devout Catholic. Mr. Spencer has the difficult task of trying to balance his own beliefs with a wife whose religion has left her wanting, especially now that there may be a priest in the family. Gabriel Franken is sensitive and caring as Father Alex, a man harboring his own hidden secrets. The audience will be surprised to discover the road each character takes and how Nedved ties up each thread…or does he?
Once again the Gift Theatre, that jewel of Jefferson Park’s Arts District, provides a rich, exceptionally well-told tale about real people honestly confronting life-altering choices and dilemmas. Marti Lyons orchestrates this realistic story of self-discovery with care and honesty, allowing the humanity of these five characters to shine forth. While William Nedved’s play seems to deal with a young man wrestling with an Angel, his story is universal. Everyone, at one time or another, is challenged by change and is forced to reinvent himself. With help from a higher power, we all have the strength to stay the course.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 11-August 9 by the Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-283-7071 or by going to www.thegifttheatre.org
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.