Written by Laura Pedersen; Directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser
Produced by Brierpatch Productions
Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 12.14.14
Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street
by Cindy Pierre on 10.30.14
Peter Cormican, James Michael Lambert, Paula Ewin, Kate Kearney-Patch, Emily Batsford, Kendall Rileigh,
and Mark Banik in The Brightness of Heaven. Photo by John Quilty.
BOTTOM LINE: Although cleverly written and beautifully designed, there is too much dramatic spectacle, a few under-developed characters, and no fidelity to one point of view.
It’s 1974 in Buffalo, NY, and the city is bustling from the world’s economic, social, and political activity. While the United States contends with the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Second Vatican Council, progressive movements, and other important issues, many feel compelled to choose between the values they learned at home and those presented to them elsewhere. Such is the case with the Kilgannons, an Irish family divided in as many ways as there are members, in Laura Pedersen’s explosive The Brightness of Heaven.
Coming together in harmony only during a rousing family rendition of When Irish Eyes are Smiling, this family has far more discord than the opening sequences leads you to believe. Although the family differs over many topics including sexuality, jobs, family status, gender roles, and quality of life, the over-arching umbrella is their Catholic heritage, and the degree to which they have stayed close to or stepped away from this. On the eve of a party planned for the patriarch Ed (played jovially and bombastically by Peter Cormican), a writer of musicals, some of the clan choose an inopportune and uncomfortable time to relay their discontent.
Leading with a flaming red flag of war hoisted out of frustration and desperation is Kathleen (a compelling Kendall Rileigh), the youngest child born to Ed and his devout wife Joyce (Kate Kearney-Patch), an ex-nun hopeful. Kathleen is pregnant and set to wed her live-in, divorced, and Jewish father of her child. Trailing behind her with none of the enthusiasm and only a fraction of the angst is Brendan (Bill Coyne), Kathleen’s eldest brother. Troubled, but beloved by his parents, Brendan can’t seem to bridge the massive gap between an unsuccessful and unwanted theatrical career and the calling to the priesthood that he might have missed. Brendan is the opposite of middle-child Dennis (Mark Banik), the dutiful son, husband, and father that has remained near his parents and religion, where he was planted.
Rounding out the family is single-mother Mary (Paula Ewin), Ed’s sister; her daughter Grace (Emily Batsford), an unfulfilled and gloomy nurse; and Jimmy (James Michael Lambert), Mary’s gay son. What was supposed to be a happy gathering and tribute to Ed quickly devolves into a platform for everyone to air their grievances, expose secrets, rant against traditions, and defend their positions. Unfortunately, although the shouting matches are entertaining with some cleverly-written quips, The Brightness of Heaven shines with spectacle, but leaves a shadow on the writer’s own point of view.
Pedersen does a great job of mining a topic that many perceive as being far from black and white. Each character represents a spot on the spectrum of opinions about Catholicism, from those who vehemently oppose it to those who wholeheartedly support it. Although it is admirable to present such a layered topic, there are too many characters, and some are one-dimensional and predictable. There is enough diversity for anyone to find someone to identify with, but the driving force behind Pedersen's play is ambiguous. Should you side with tradition or the future?
Both sides are presented well (although tradition comes off weaker since the devout characters are also bigoted and seem to have faith out of habit, mainly for social acceptance), but it doesn't seem like the playwright has ruled on the debate. While the Catholic religion is the vehicle that Pedersen uses to have this discourse because of its prevalence in 1974 Buffalo, The Brightness of Heaven is really about how the old holds up against the new, and if traditions should be replaced with future ideals. The tensions in the play arise from the difficulties in having the two meld, if that’s even a viable option.
Stylistically, set and costume designer Meganne George transports us back to the 1970s with a wonderful feel for the period. The tones are groovy and palatable, and the interior of the home is bedecked with enough stuff to make it look warm and inviting, but not too cluttered. Ludovica Villar-Hauser's sharp direction helps the large cast navigate the home well, especially when all eight characters are on stage at once. Costumes are also a triumph with enough fun pieces to make you want to traipse through Beacon’s Closet or any other trendy vintage store in New York for that one-of-a-kind find. With the exception of crosses on walls and pendants that don’t bear Christ’s body (like a Roman Catholic’s would), everything seems as it should be.
Sound and lighting are also remarkable. Janie Bullard fine-tunes all the tunes, from the ringing of distant clocks to the switching of one radio station to the next. Every sound hits the mark. Natalie Robin's lighting design is also notable. One particular success is when Brendan shows up on the stoop of the family home, and has a conversation with Dennis outside. The light that darkens part of his face speaks of the shame that he brings on family members like Dennis that don't praise his actions.
Does The Brightness of Heaven shine? Yes and no. There is enough witty banter, good performances, and polished production elements to keep the audience engaged. However, with so much quarreling and not enough of a resolution or one dominant voice, the audience is left to feel as ambivalent as the writer seems to be.
(The Brightness of Heaven plays at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, through December 14th, 2014. Performances are Wednesdays at 3PM and 7PM, Thursdays and Fridays at 7PM, Saturdays at 3PM and 7PM, and Sundays at 3PM. There is an additional performance on Tuesday November 25 at 7PM, and there are no performances on Halloween or Thanksgiving. Tickets are $66-$76; for tickets and more information visit www.thebrightnessofheaven.com.)