by Richard Engling
We had a great opening weekend for MIRACLES IN THE FALL. What fun to see all of you who joined us for the celebration! And now the first reviews are rolling in. There will be more to come, but here are highlights from the first reviews and photos from the production. If you haven’t seen the show yet, please join us soon!
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.
–Time Out Chicago
O’Connor’s story of alcoholism, self-destruction and self-preservation, faith and family secrets, all set against the backdrop of a world turning itself upside down, is familiar. Nonetheless, the characters are compelling, and the world being what it is, it’s a story that certainly bears telling and retelling.
O’Connor developed the work in 2013 as part of PET’s festival of new plays. The setting is Detroit in 1968, a year out from the city’s Twelfth Street Riots, and for the Connelly family, a year out from the death of a mother and wife who commanded a complicated, painful blend of love, hate, respect and contempt from her husband, Jimmy, and her children, Clare and Charlie.
Clare, who entered the convent — at her mother’s insistence — at age thirteen, struggles with her own embrace of post-Vatican II, social justice-focused theology and the attraction of submission to a simpler call to obedience and duty. As she grapples with anger at her father’s alcoholism and his attacks on both aspects of her faith, her estranged brother returns home, post-Vietnam, looking for reconciliation with their father.Clare’s life is further complicated by the departure of the authoritarian Monsignor who hands down penance and “charges” her with caring for her father, and his replacement by Father Lentine, a young priest whose uncertainties about faith and duty and meaning run parallel to her own.
Both the intimate setting of the Connellys’ living room and the backdrop of a still-smoldering Detroit, cautiously rallying around the “miracle” of the American League Champion Detroit Tigers, remain painfully resonant, as Ferguson, Missouri, fades from national attention and rare positive press for Chicago’s South Side in the wake of Jackie Robinson West’s ascension to Little League World Series glory gives way, once again to crime statistics….
It is to the playwright’s credit and the company’s that the work is likely to stand up to time and repeat viewings.Charles C. Palia, Jr.’s scenic design is excellent for the space and for the piece. With almost no set redressing, the action moves from living room to classroom to a prayer sanctuary nestled in the corner of a graveyard. In conjunction with Benjamin L. White’s lighting and Aaron Stephenson’s sound design, the spatial logic of scenes is always clear, maintaining the important distinction between private and public life as well as that between individual conscience and societal responsibility.
The story focuses on the eldest daughter of the family, Clare Connelly. Clare is a nun, but not in the sweet Sally Field style, but rather more like an angry, lost character that could have escaped right out of Edward Albee’s, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Laura Berner Taylor throws herself entirely into bringing Clare to life. She completely commands every scene she’s in and gives a powerhouse performance…The more we learn about Clare and the more Berner Taylor has to draw on the more riveting she becomes.[Fred A.] Wellicsh really sinks his teeth into playing his character’s alcoholism and Parkinson’s, both difficult tasks for sure…his outbursts are theatrical and played to perfection….
Rian Jairell (Fr. Lentine) and Mickey O’Sullivan (Charlie Connely) both bring as much to their roles as possible early in the proceedings and truly shine later as their characters become more developed….
Charles C. Palia’s set worked nicely in a small space considering the number of locations that were needed…Benjamin L. White’s lighting design and Jessica Smith’s Costumes and Props were spot on and added to the feel of the piece and the period.
–Chicago Stage Standard
It’s hard to imagine a richer setting for an American problem play than the home of a working-class Irish-American family in Detroit in the autumn of 1968—all those complicated Irish-Catholic personal problems (alcoholism, sexual repression, hair-trigger tempers, free-floating anger) and heady issues of the day (race riots, Vatican II, Vietnam, intergenerational strife, not to mention the 1968 World Series) almost literally at the doorstep….
O’Connor has a good ear for dialogue, though, and Aaron Stephenson’s sound design incorporating audio of Tigers’ broadcasts and jingles provides a sense of period authenticity. There’s something appealing about a play that brings the traditions of Irish family drama to a Midwestern setting and an era many in the audience will remember.
–Chicago Theatre Beat
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Tags: Benjamin L. White, Charles C. Palia, Chuck O'Connor, Fred A. Wellicsh, Laura Berner Taylor, Mickey O’Sullivan, Miracles in the Fall, Polarity Ensemble Theatre, reviews, Rian Jairell, Richard Engling, Richard Shavzin