“The Brightness of Heaven” at the Cherry Lane Studio Theatre (Closed Sunday December 14, 2014)

October 26, 2014 | Off-Broadway | Tags:
Written by Laura Pedersen
Directed by Ludovica Viilar-Hauser
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

When Ed Kilgannon (played with powerful panache by Peter Cormican) stretches out on his favorite chair in his Buffalo, New York home, he is not simply snoozing; the head of the Kilgannon clan is doing his best to hide from the matrix of disturbing truths that threaten the fabric of his nuclear and extended Kilgannon-Jablonski families. And he is hiding from his own truth which has held him hostage in a judgmental family system all of his married life.

Laura Pedersen’s “The Brightness of Heaven” focuses on a middle-class upstate New York extended family that has depended on its Roman Catholic faith to keep its members in check at the expense of their attempts to discover themselves and their places in the changing world of the 1970s. There is nothing new in the laundry list of human “offenses” that – according to Ed’s wife Joyce (Kate Kearney-Patch) and sister Mary (Paula Ewin) – would send the miscreants straight to hell.

Jimmy Jablonski (James Michael Lambert) is openly gay and his mother Mary knows he is headed for eternal punishment. Mary’s daughter Grace works at a “skilled nursing facility” and is so depressed she bites her nails and pulls out her hair and – perhaps most disturbing to her mother – is seeing a therapist. Ed and Joyce’s youngest child Kathleen (Kendall Rileigh) has had an abortion and plans to marry outside the faith. Their middle child Dennis (Mark Banik) has given up his life for his parents and has neglected his own wife and family. And their oldest child Brendan (played with just the perfect hint of disdain by Bill Coyne) is an out-of-work alcoholic actor. Mr. Coyne’s Brendan is the quintessential prodigal son and Mr. Banik’s Dennis is the perfect template for the brooding and jealous stay-at-home brother who never gets the fatted lamb feast.

Ed’s truth is revealed by his nephew Jimmy during the round-the-dinner-table recriminations. Slightly emboldened by the wine, he blurts out “Please ─ what do you think was going on when Uncle Ed moved Brendan to Manhattan and the bright lights of Broadway and spent the summer there with him?” Peter Cormican’s Ed has clearly constructed a wall of denial and defeat around his sexual status and the regret and fear this character lives with lines the actor’s face throughout the feigned merriment. If only the playwright had spent more time developing her characters, the audience could care even more for them.

This laundry list of human conditions never transcends being just a rehearsal of issues that families encounter and deal with. Playwright Laura Pedersen does nothing to help the audience feel anything for any of her characters. And director Ludovica Villar-Hauser seems content with moving them in and out of the house and all around the living space with no apparent reason. This leaves the talented cast to fend for themselves as they attempt to bring believability and authenticity to their characters. Ms. Pedersen takes on too much and resolves too little in her seventy minute drama.

This is not a Tracy Letts drama where a myriad of dysfunction ultimately reveals the dark crevice where the reasons for the dysfunction lie. This is a skimming of the surface – a mere rehearsal of the many challenges to faith a religious family might have in the 1970s. There is no catharsis. After all the carping and shouting and verbal abuse, Joyce’s appearance at the play’s end in a halo of light showing some remorse does little to redeem her or the play she is in. Promising to “start planning [Kathleen’s] shower tomorrow” and to “make her pineapple upside down-cake” is hardly a sign of true “redemption and release.” It is difficult to see any brightness of heaven in this mostly cloudy comedy.