Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Sacred Hearts"

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note: entire contents copyright 2007 by Larry Stark

"Sacred Hearts"

by Colleen Curran
Directed by David J. Miller

Scenic Design by David J. Miller
Lighting Design by Jedd Adelberg
Sound Design by Walter Eduardo
Costume Design by Prav Menon-Johansson
Props by Deirdre Benson
Statue Design & Modeling by Greg Maraio
Production Manager John Tibbetts
Assistant Stage Manager Cassandra Fox
Stage Manager Deirdre Benson

Gretchen...Melissa Baroni
Evan...........Curt Klump
Bridget.........Eliza Lay
Tim...........Greg Maraio
Violet.......Renee Miller
Father Phil.......Ed Peed

Director David J. Miller assembled a crackerjack cast for his Zeitgeist Stage Company's production of "Sacred Hearts" by Canadian Colleen Curran. They work as an effective group, switching easily from straight, satire-drenched comedy to deadly toe-to-toe confessions and conflicts. Watching them deal with a series of such widely different scenes is a delight, though I found myself wishing they had a better play to work with.

Perhaps the easiest of Curran's characters --- Father Phil, the village priest --- falls to Ed Peed. He is always softly sincere, quietly pushing everyone toward the humanity in his Church's message. But, like all but two of the play's characters, he is an interloper in what the program identifies as "Westfalia in the eastern townships of Quebec, Canada." {I heard no one in the cast use a genuine Canadian accent.[Insert wry emoticon of your choice here!]} Eventually he admits to chivvying his congregation toward awareness of a wider world because his ministry in Central America left him with memories of a too-close identification to friends who were "Disappeared", but his handling of the role is smooth and unbroken throughout.

The other unchanging character is a native, over-enthusiastic yet under-talented columnist for the weekly newspaper who envies visitors their wider-world successes. Melissa Baroni is the embodiment of Gretchen's forceful, scattergun enthusiasms. She has accepted the fact that despite her childhood insults from vacationers and her faint hope of annulment of her unhappy marriage, she is always a comic character and even her sincere attempts to help end in laughable disaster.

Renee Miller plays the other Westfalia native: Violet, a good-Catholic cheerleader for a locally-grown miracle. She represents a settled, unthinking laity expecting earth-shaking, famous messages accompanying an inexplainable 36-degree turn by a concrete statue of Mother Mary --- which opens the play. She bombards the only (reluctant) witness with demands for revelations, often comes on as a flighty airhead ("I only said I'd TRY to say nothing!" "But we asked for two days, and you couldn't keep quiet Two Hours!") but makes a compelling defense of her ageing congregation's objections to their new pastor's new sermons. The playwright seems to see her as Gretchen half the time, as Father Phil the rest.

The effect of wider-world ideas on a town rural enough to support a wool-selling shepherdess comes through Curt Klump, playing a newcomer journalist who bought the weekly newspaper, and tries to cover this "local miracle" with big-city investigative skepticism. His Evan mistakes the witness' need of friendship with his understanding mind for a response to his own need for an extra-marital affair. His search for a secular or psychological explanation is edged with his own mistakes about this situation.

The most recent arrival in Westfalia is the witness' brother, a budding burocrat come to insist she stop wasting her life herding sheep and fulfill a career as a brilliant lawyer. Greg Maraio has been given too little motivation for his argument, which collapses into rhetorical repetitions. Then, suddenly, he becomes the vehicle for a moving revelation that could have shortened the play about an hour if it came earlier. That confrontation with his sister, however, is brilliant theatrically.

But, ultimately, the play's ill-built pyramid rests on the witness's insistence that whatever "message" accompanied that small miracle was hers, personally, not anything the wider world could, or should, understand. As Bridget, Eliza Lay has a witty, often critical attitude toward her own religion and its surface-mythologies. There is, however, a bedrock of faith there dealing not with lip-service but with personal truths and convictions. There are points at which the gears shift for no discerible reason, but she meets the needs of each moment squarely and forcefully.

Designer/Director Miller has crammed four or five scenes into the cramped confines of the BCA Black Box, relying on Jeff Adelberg's lighting to sort out which is which when --- but when a phone rings in Bridget's cottage all audience eyes focus immediately on the one resting on Father Phil's desk only inches away from the current action. He has eliminated distracting and time-consuming set-changes, but at the expense of the play's room to breathe. (Bridget's hill and Or Lady's shrine tend to collapse into one another.)

But at least he tried to find solutions for a script that yearns for the freedoms of film. In one excellently paced sequence, Maraio and Lay sit at her table as she starts to narrate her friendship and not-quite-affair --- when a knock at the door reveals Krump, playing their first meeting with Lay, while Maraio watches. He can comment on the scene, and Lay can turn and answer, before she returns to the table to discuss it. This is an excellent use of theatricality to do, and I think do better, a scene that would be different if filmed. But later, when hundreds of thrill-seeking "pilgrims" begin flooding the town, the play yearns for wide-projection background-shots that a handfull of offstage auto-horns cannot supply.

In a real sense, almost every character in this play deserves a full two-hour treatment of each individual life, and Playwright Curran does them a rude disservice biting them into unrealized chunks and then never really trying to unify their diverse aspects around a single, moving theme. "Sacred Hearts" wanders all over the map as these excellent actors try their best to drive it in a single direction. It's exhilarating to watch them try, though, isn't it?

( a k a larry stark )

"Sacred Hearts" (26 January - 17 February)
Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, BOSTON MA
1 (617) 482-3279

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