The brighter heaven shines, the greater the darkness created. If shadows metaphorically apply to guilt, depression and constriction, then surely the Kilgannon and Jablonski families who have experienced the brilliance of heavenly scriptures and folkways via the culture of the Catholic Church and St. Aloysius school have also been shadowed in darkness. This thematic point-counterpoint prevails throughout character interactions and behaviors in Laura Pedersen’s intriguing and incisive comedic-dramatic play The Brightness of Heaven, exceptionally directed by the always on-point Ludovica Villar-Hauser. The production is currently at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
What can mitigate the glare of burning Church doctrine and the traditional clichés that bring little personal happiness yet bond the Kilgannons and Jablonskis in strangleholds of deceit? There is the soft light of love and forgiveness created by myriad colors contributed by the individual family members. However ironic, however subtly truthful, all blend. And the rainbow created strikes at the heart of how the Jablonskis and the Kilgannons are able to find their way along life-paths, sometimes bending to compromise, other times forging out alone and in silence. Nevertheless, they do come back to stand with each other, whether in shade or in a pale reflection of the heavenly light that continues to offer the hope of understanding.
The play begins as Ed’s sister Mary Jablonski and Ed’s wife Joyce Kilgannon prepare for the evening’s special occasion bringing the Jablonskis and Kilgannons together for their “family act” to be performed at St. Aloysius school. Pedersen has set the action in Buffalo, NY, in 1974, and with humor anchors the backdrop of this family’s strict religious culture, the narrow attitudes, the adherence to the social life of the church and St. Aloysius through the discourse of these velvet matriarchs. There are religious statues in the kitchen; Pedersen and Villar-Hauser have clarified the importance of Catholicism to these women who have been raised in a Catholic community and who have rigidly brought up their children in the tenets of the Church.
The beauty of Pedersen’s writing and Villar-Hauser’s direction is that Mary (Paula Ewin) and Joyce (Kate Kearney-Patch) are thoroughly delightful, folksy and funny seen through the lens of our trending 21st century viewpoints. They are not scary “religious” right-wingers or hard-nosed fanatics, though on another level they could be, but this is a subtlety that we are lured away from considering outright.
One reason is that Pedersen guides us through the exposition cleverly. The characterizations appear to be human and well rounded. The setting and staging are comfortable, homey and warm. Another reason is that Villar-Hauser’s fine direction and the talented actors Ewin and Kearney-Patch remain amazingly empathetic and likable. We understand that their beliefs are borne out of love and faith, not political didacticism. We are with them back in 1974 as we listen to them gossip and take care of homely chores.
The worm turns, however, as the adult children show up for the dinner. We begin to see the effects of this stultifying, religious upbringing and hear dark undercurrents and verbal swipes of irony and sarcasm.
We note other behavioral clues the playwright, actors and director have developed for us. For example Grace (wonderfully played by Emily Batsford) whips her caustic humor like a rapier. She ironically quips about losing friends because her mom Mary shouted at her on the baseline when she played softball, “Thou shall not steal.” Emily stands with a crooked, caved-in posture; so much for the scriptural “the crooked being made straight.” It is a clever detail signifying how rigidity can have not onlya negative mental influence, but a physical one as well.
It is as if Emily’s self-perceived “weirdness” (unmarried, she tells her mother she has no life because her mother has no life; she only works and drives her mother to wherever) also translates to her body. Pedersen’s characterization reveals that within Emily the conflict of attempting to live with “grace” has actually had a warping effect, as she has not yet “found her way of salvation,” living and experiencing life while she struggles with the religious notion that when you die and go to heaven things are better.
For each of the adult children religion has made an impact of light and dark. The strain between those forces has caused them to live a life of duality, putting on social veneers and masks with their mothers and with the community so they will not disappoint them. They do not contravene the “appearance” of rightness to everyone’s face. They flout religious commandments behind everyone’s back. However, living a life of deception in conflict with the truth is hell. The Kilgannon and Jablonski children are suffering. They have learned to please Joyce and Mary at great cost to their own personal happiness and dignity; either route they choose, they will be a disappointment, and there is no easy or smooth road ahead.
Pedersen draws the characterizations profoundly. We see that each of the children yearns for acceptance and understanding, not realizing the extent to which they may have it, for the “religion” they fight against has at its foundation love and forgiveness if the faith is followed to its fullness.
The question is, do Mary and Joyce follow the religion after the spirit, or do they follow it after the law? Is maintaining the appearance of what is right, adhering superficially to religion to look good in the eyes of the community, more important than spiritual grace, love and forgiveness, and perhaps looking bad in the community’s perceptions? None of the children during the first third of the play forces this question to a head to test where Mary and Joyce or even Ed stand. They don’t confront Mary and Joyce because they cannot confront their own inner hypocrisy of living in the shadows. Pedersen carefully reveals these dualities and the aspects of light and dark in the characters’ interactions.
Some of the light comes in the form of song interludes where various family members sing out of a love of making a joyful noise. The cast are magical as they integrate the music seamlessly and skillfully with the play’s dialogue.
The light also comes in the form of humorous comments to the matriarchs; even Dad Ed (the talented Peter Cormican) chimes in with a joke to shift focus from uncomfortable topics or strained conversation. The levity (a specialty of Pedersen) is organic, arising from each character’s individuality; it indicates the extent they are trying to resolve hypocrisy or self-deception. It also functions to help them defuse the tenets of Mary’s and Joyce’s interpretations of sin and right behavior. But even Mary and Joyce are good-natured and well-meaning, though religiously inflexible. So the benign ridicule is effective counterpoint to the various characters’ underlying guilt, the “gift that keeps on giving,” notes Grace.
The brighter side also manifests when the adult children are out of earshot of Mary and Joyce and are honest with one another. For example, before Brendan (a fine Bill Coyne) enters the house, he speaks outside with his brother Dennis (portrayed by Mark Banik with rectitude and middle-child compliance). Brendan and Dennis argue about their lives (Brendan’s drinking). Brendan tells Dennis, pointing to his head, that “one can make heaven out of hell and hell out of heaven,” a comment Brendan wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing with his mom or his Aunt Mary. Like Emily’s caved-in posture and “weirdness,” Brendan’s drinking reflects his inner conflicts, his disappointments, his deceit, perhaps his inability to completely reconcile his religious beliefs.
In each instance, Pedersen reveals that all of the children are learning how to be themselves within a narrow framework as they try to establish a life away from their parents’ traditions. All are struggling to break free to become who they are comfortable being, so that eventually they can reveal themselves to those from whom they most desire acceptance, despite the censure that they know might follow.
It is not a coincidence that Pedersen has the youngest daughter take the risk of sharing the truth of her life, and has Mary’s son who has been away to also come forward. Kathleen Kilgannon (an excellent performance by Kendall Rileigh) and Jimmy Jablonski (James Michael Lambert in an equally fine portrayal) can no longer live with their own hypocrisy, self-deception and misery. In the deftly written confrontation scene at the dinner table, the conversation grows more heated and dynamic. The strains between dark and light, anger and humor stretch to the breaking point. It is an unruly communion, and some of the family get up from the table, but the arguments continue.
And when the truth finally explodes before them, the Kilgannons and the Jablonskis stare heavily at its brightness. Now the possibility of being set free shines down upon everyone. The behaviors which contradict church tenets are thrown like dice on the table and the secrets are revealed. The children have taken a chance on being real. They hope to satisfy their own personal integrity. Mary and Joyce who have been making the safe wagers all their lives have rolled the dice and turned up snake-eyes. Now they must identify what they are made of and who they are. Do they follow the spirit of grace in love and forgiveness? Or do they condemn, shun and censure? Should they choose appearance or substance, the law or the spirit? With this choice there will be no compromise.
The play’s movement toward resolution and the power of the conclusion is symbolic, believable and real. The actors’ ensemble work and the life they and the director effect moment to moment are always refreshing and organic. This is a powerful and thought-provoking production, too good to miss. And this is its final week.
The Brightness of Heaven will be at the Cherry Lane Theatre until December 14.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B000XUBBQY][amazon template=iframe image&asin=1555916929][amazon template=iframe image&asin=1419616897]