Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Bella Donna"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi


by John Kavanagh
directed by Rose Carlson

Lt. Joseph Brodsky … Michael Gonzales
Sgt. Luigi Pirelli … Randy Marquis
Sgt. Stan Smith … Dan Fitzpatrick
Jack Kelly … Webb Tilney
Nurse Mahon … Dani Duggan
Maj. William Dillman … Richard La France
Sgt. Charley Lynch … Gerard Slattery
Maria Connelly … Alex Zielke
Voice of Corp. Wile … Dan Fitzpatrick

In my recent scribbles for THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD and THE WELL OF THE SAINTS, I quoted a young Irish playwright who declared: "nobody's seen the rest of our work yet….” The Devanaughn Theatre has taken steps to remedy that, this season, beginning with their lovely production of Brian Friel’s TRANSLATIONS and continuing with the American premiere of John Kavanagh’s BELLA DONNA which is based on the true story of an American B-17 Flying Fortress that crashed on Benbulben in Sligo, Ireland, during WWII; the three surviving American soldiers are being looked after in a bare-bones hospital alongside a local man who lies in a coma after being badly burned in a freak accident. As Sligo is neutral territory, the soldiers risk being sent to an internment camp; Maj. William Dillman, an American medical officer, arrives to get the men on their feet as soon as possible; the evening consists of gentle, tough and funny culture clashes.

BELLA DONNA is impressive on several levels: “Irish”-ness has been banished, for starters --- instead of a spitfire colleen, there is Maria Connelly, a shy, conflicted woman, American-born but Irish-bred, who is the burn victim’s intended but falls in love with Maj. Dillman and he with her; instead of a crone, there is Nurse Mahon, a nun who runs the hospital with the grim determination of a captain trying to keep a sinking ship afloat; the local police sergeant is in robust good humor but not a buffoon about it; there is death but at Nature’s hands; a Christmas toast does not end in drunken revelry but in a slow dance culminating in a kiss; etc. --- refreshing stuff, this. Audiences may or may not notice that Mr. Kavanagh (a Sligo native, himself) is writing in two voices, Irish and American --- the Irish voice is guarded; earthbound; the American one, free-flowing and direct. The two speaking soldiers are near-caricatures, especially the mercurial Italian-American who nicknames Maria “Bella Donna” after their downed plane, but Mr. Kavanagh has created an appealing American in Maj. Dillman, a figure of flexible authority, sensitive enough to play a musical instrument yet hardened enough by the war so that his fleeting romance with Maria is a sought-after haven rather than a passionate affair and Maria displays the same healthy, natural longing for him that Maire shows towards Lt. Yolland in Mr. Friel’s TRANSLATIONS. A “don’t ask-don’t tell” situation is handled in period with dignity and tact, there are two static-filled walky-talky exchanges that lend stunning authenticity to the proceedings and the closing duet between Maria and her future falls as softly as snow falls on a grave.

Much of the Devanaughn cast is at community theatre level but under Rose Carlson’s clear, compassionate direction they have been shaped and coaxed into something memorable. Whether or not the four convalescents are meant to remain onstage, Ms. Carlson’s keeping them in place allows them to remain men being discussed and squabbled over rather than pawns of war (a good, clever touch, before and after Intermission: those characters who cannot walk are carried off and onstage). Richard La France and Alex Zielke stand out as Maj. Dillman and Maria; their subtle Q&A sessions signposting two potential soul-mates, and their culminating dance, intimate but chaste, is truly erotic. I first saw Mr. La France as the soon-to-be ex-boyfriend in Ms. Carlson’s production of BURN THIS; he is on the bland side but clicks with Maj. Dillman, this time around, making him a good guy that men would want as a friend and women as something more than. Ms. Zielke’s Maria may not be as affecting had she been on a smaller scale; here is a tall, strapping woman nevertheless cowed into accepting her narrow lot in life; a filly pacing before the hedge but lacking the courage to leap over it. Dani Duggan, wearing make-up that makes her face look clawed rather than mature, plays Sister Mahon on one note but at least it is the right one, and Michael Gonzales, new to me, gives a physically correct rendition of sexual repression, jittery and defiant.

Devanaughn’s playing space reinvents itself once again: gone is the immaculate art gallery-apartment for THE PLAY ABOUT THE BABY; its bricks have gone rustic around the edges of Gerry Clements’ shoe-string setting which, oddly, has sections of the Bella Donna plane at either end of the room --- symbolism? or souvenirs?

On the night I attended the audience just barely outnumbered the actors, and ‘t would be sad if those who are flocking to the Abbey Theatre’s deconstruction of THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD choose to ignore THE WELL OF THE SAINTS and BELLA DONNA which are far more satisfying and can both be viewed for less than the price of a PLAYBOY ticket, alone, but, as I scribbled before, Irish stereotypes die hard --- and stereotyped audiences, even harder.


"Bella Donna" ( 4 - 21 November )
The Piano Factory, 791 Tremont Street, BOSTON MA

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