Polarity Ensemble Theatre at Greenhouse Theater Center. By Chuck O'Connor. Directed by Richard Shavzin. With Laura Berner Taylor, Fred Wellisch, Mickey O'Sullivan, Rian Jairell. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission.
Theater review by Dan Jakes
Chuck O'Connor's new drama about a torn Catholic family struggling to make amends takes a page from the familiar Eugene O'Neill playbook of dysfunction and disillusionment around the dinner table. You've got your hardened Irish blue-collar father, long given up on forgiving his late wife for an unnamed sin; your prodigal son, fallen from grace and trying to turn back the clock and win dad's acceptance; and most aptly, a liquor cabinet full of whiskey to drown a generation's worth of sorrows and secrets before setting them all aflame.
It's not exactly subtle, and neither is Richard Shavzin's production for Polarity Ensemble Theatre. Set in 1968 Detroit, the plot mainly centers on Sister Clare Connelly (Laura Berner Taylor), a nun who, like her father (Fred Wellisch), takes comfort in the church's deeply rooted traditions even as she fails to articulate why. As her father says, "We're Catholics! We don't understand God, we obey God." It's a mentality shared by the parish's head priest, but not Father Lentine (Rian Jairell), a post–Vatican II–style minister who fills in indefinitely while the monsignor is away. He's young, full of colloquialisms and jokes, and applies a Jesuit sense of mercy and progressiveness to the parish, which becomes a source of both intrigue and frustration for Sister Clare.
During confession, Clare punishes herself for a flash of anger she feels toward her dad when he drops a racial slur in order to get a rise out of her. She expects a demand for penance, but is instead reassured: "Righteous anger isn't a sin." If she wants forgiveness, Father Lentine explains, she'll just have to give it to herself—there's no crime as far as God is concerned. She'd rather take the Hail Marys. Those she can understand.
Things are further complicated when her brother, Charlie (Mickey O'Sullivan), arrives home from active duty in Vietnam unannounced seeking absolution for an ugly split from the family. Optimistic and a little naive, Father Lentine invites himself into the squabble, and everyone's faith in God and each other is tested in the resulting firestorm.
O'Connor's play touches upon the expected themes—shame for shame's sake, loneliness, burying guilt in vice, self-doubt—sometimes, with metaphors that ring a little too obvious a bit too early on. Charlie offers to help paint and repair dad's house, noting that if he doesn't seal up the wood before winter, rot will get in and fester. It doesn't take much to see where this is going, and it essentially hits all the points you'd expect.
Still, there are able performances all around. There's not much growth or arc in any of the characters, but O'Sullivan's resolved, quiet and steady delivery helps the father/son story achieve the tone Shavzin seems to be aiming for. By the time we get to the titular fall, O'Connor's real statement comes to light, and it's a moving one. I was just wishing that fall were a bit deeper.