‘The Brightness of Heaven’ by Acclaimed Author Laura Pedersen
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 cliches 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 the family’s individual colors. However ironic, however subtly truthful, all blend. 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 bathe them, in the hope of creating a new understanding about each other and themselves.
The play begins as Ed Kilgannon’s sister Mary Jablonski’s, and Ed’s wife Joyce Kilgannon prepare for the evening’s special occasion bringing all the Jablonskis and Kilgannons together for their “family act.” This will be performed at St. Aloysius school. Pedersen has set the action in Buffalo, NY, 1974. With humor she 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, and 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, 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 with each other and take care of homely chores.
The worm turns, however, when the adult children show up for dinner and prepare for the family event. As the children and parents interact, we begin to see the effects of the stultifying, religious upbringing. We hear the dark undercurrents and the verbal swipes of irony and sarcasm in their conversation. We also 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 during softball because her mom shouted at her on the baseline, “Thou shall not steal.” Grace stands with a crooked, caved in posture. It is a clever detail signifying how rigidity not only can have a negative mental influence, but a physical one as well. The scripture which is supposed to “make the crooked straight” has failed; Grace’s self-perceived “weirdness” manifests in her body. Pedersen’s characterization reveals that her conflict of attempting to “live in grace” has ironically had a warping effect on the character. Grace has not yet “found her way of salvation” in life, as she struggles with the religious notion that the afterlife, not the present life, is where one wants to be as a Catholic.
For each of the adult children, religion has made an impact bringing light and dark. The conflict between these forces has caused them to live a life of duality. They put on “righteousness” masks with their mothers and with the community so they will not be a “disappointment.” But they flout religious traditions behind their backs. However, living a life of deception in conflict with the truth is hell. The Kilgannon and Jablonski children are suffering. They have learned to lie to Joyce and Mary at a great cost to their own personal happiness and dignity. Whether they are honest or deceptive, someone will get hurt. There is no easy or smooth road ahead.
Pedersen draws the characterizations profoundly. We see that each of the children yearn for acceptance and understanding. They don’t realize that they may have it, for the “religion” they fight against has at its foundation love and forgiveness. The question is, do Mary and Joyce follow the religion after the spirit (grace, love)? Or do they follow it after the law (looking righteous to please the church community)? During the first part of the evening, the children don’t challenge their parents. It takes strength to confront Mary and Joyce. Since they do not muster the courage to reveal their own hypocrisy of living in the shadows, the secrets remain hidden. Pedersen hints at their 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 the family’s togetherness. 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 jokes to shift focus away from uncomfortable topics. The levity (a specialty of Pedersen), is organic, arising from each character’s individual struggles. It indicates the extent they are trying to resolve hypocrisy or self-deception. The jokes also help them defuse the tenets of Mary’s and Joyce’s interpretations of sin and right behavior. Mary and Joyce are good-natured and well meaning, though religiously inflexible and indirectly condemning. So the benign ridicule is an effective counterpoint to the characters’ underlying guilt, the “gift that keeps on giving.” notes Grace.
The light also manifests when the adult children are out of earshot of their mothers; it is then that they can be honest with one another. For example before Brendan (a fine Bill Coyne), enters the house, he speaks with his brother Dennis (Mark Banik portrays him with rectitude). They argue about how religion impacts them. Dennis (who appears righteous to his mom but is deceiving her), criticizes Brendan for drinking and not living a “proper” life. 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 saying to his mom or aunt. Like Grace’s caved in posture and “weirdness,” Brendan’s drinking reflects his inner conflicts, disappointments, deceit and 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 parent’s traditions. All are struggling to break free so that eventually, they can reveal themselves to those they most desire acceptance from, despite the risk censure that may follow.
It is not a coincidence that Pedersen has the youngest daughter risk speaking the truth about her life, and has Mary’s son do the same. Both have committed mortal sins in the “eyes” of the church. Kathleen Kilgannon (an excellent performance by Kendall Rileigh), and Jimmy Jablonski (James Michael Lambert in an equally fine portrayal), can no longer pretend to be holy while living in self-deception and misery. The confrontation scene takes place at the dinner table; Pedersen deftly escalates the strains of dark and light, anger and humor until they erupt and boil over from undercurrents that had remained below the surface.
The pleasant dinner turns into an unruly communion. Some of the family get up from the table in avoidance, but there is no turning back and the truth explodes brilliantly as the Kilgannons and the Jablonskis stare heavily at its brightness. Now there is the freedom to speak. The children dredge up their secret sins and throw them on the table for everyone to see. With this roll of the dice, they have taken a chance on being real, hoping to satisfy their own personal integrity and gain peace, though it may mean turning their back on the church. For Mary and Joyce who have made safe wagers all their lives, the dice rolls snake eyes. Now it is their turn to reveal what they are made of and who they are. Should they follow the spirit of grace in love and forgiveness? Or should they strictly follow the church and condemn what their children have done?
Pedersen’s powerful resolution crafted by the actors and the director’s fine tuning 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 thought provoking production is too good to miss.
The Brightness of Heaven will be at The Cherry Lane Theatre until December 14th.
The review first appeared on Blogcritics.
Posted on December 11, 2014, in NYC Theater Reviews, Off Broadway and tagged " Laura Pedersen, 'The Brightness of Heaven, Ludovica Villar-Hauser, The Cherry Lane Theatre. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.