By: Tim Treanor
Whole Against the Sky, at Trumpet Vine Theatre
Paul Donnelly’s new play, Whole Against the Sky, has much going for it. The dialogue is witty, the characterizations are sharp, and there are scenes of enormous emotional authenticity and power. The play is still a few rewrites away from being the strong theater it could be, however. In particular, the flabby ending disappoints.
It is a measure of the hard, and good, work Donnelly has done so far on his plot to compare the play’s description on the Trumpet Vine website to what we actually see on the stage. Jack Rheingold (Jon Townson), a gay lawyer living in Washington, has returned to his Cincinnati hometown to witness the remarriage of his hard-bitten, domineering mother Carol (Jean Hudson Miller) to Ken, a right-wing Christian activist. (Returning from a pre-nuptial party, Jack observes, “I was the only one there who hadn’t heard Rush Limbaugh that morning”.) Jack and his big sister Linda (Ellie Nicoll) cordially detest their mother; Jack detests Linda’s manic-depressive husband Greg (Gerald R. Browning) and you can be certain that Linda will detest Ken as soon as she meets him. Regrettably, she never has the chance, as Ken gets a surprise one-way ticket to verify his religious beliefs the day she arrives.
This is the first scene; in the remainder of the play members of this extraordinarily needy family try, generally without success, to obtain comfort and support from each other. In the second Act Carol tries to reconnect with Jack by appearing on his doorstep, much to the dismay of Jack’s lover Colin (David Drake). Although Colin comes to enjoy Carol he makes it clear to Jack that her stay must come to an end; Jack’s handling of the matter manages to sear both his relationship to Colin and his relationship to his mother.
We should salute Donnelly for launching a complex examination of acceptance, forgiveness, and the wounding power of sharp words rather than writing a gay melodrama with a right-wing buffoon as a villain – which, judging from the play’s description on the website, is where the original version seemed to be going. It is much more interesting to watch good people struggle with their own weaknesses than it is to see a victim suffering under the lashes of some fulminating Christian version of Yosemite Sam.
Miller and Browning give fine performances in Trumpet Vine’s capable production of this play, and most of the rest of the cast achieve a measure of success as well. Miller, who has to transform herself from a dragon lady into a sympathetic character, does a difficult task well. While being a bitch in the first Act, she sows the seeds for a more complex character in the second Act, and when she reveals her better side, it does not strain credulity. Browning has the opposite task – to be a schlemiel who becomes less attractive as he grows more successful. He does a good job.
Nicoll as the older sister exhibited a sort of Mary Tyler Moore persona; her voice seemed to go up at the end of every line, as though asking question. I bought that Linda is insecure but it was a little monotonous. Townson and Drake similarly sell themselves as two men in a serious, loving relationship but their crucial emotional scenes seem halting and flat; Townson in particular has two very important lines which he delivers without buildup, thus muffling their impact. Daniel Mascarello delivers two soliloquies as an old lover of Jack’s; he is sometimes hard to understand.
Donnelly the playwright is also Donnelly the director, and he manages to use every inch of Theater on the Run’s stage space. This is not always a great idea, as patrons on the right side of the audience strain to hear soliloquies by Mascarello and Browning.
The play is cluttered by what appears to be debris from previous versions. The startling news that Jack was adopted is given out at one point; nothing is ever made of it again. Linda briefly talks about a pre-Greg husband whose death was ignored by her mother. This terrible detail seems to have no impact on the play as a whole. The scenes involving Jack’s old lover are similarly of questionable relevance.
Donnelly’s principal challenge, however, is to reorganize and focus the play’s ending. Rather late in the play we learn that Jack has an unfortunate tendency to say cruel things in an effort to obtain his way. It is an occupational hazard, as lawyers are paid to be mean to each other, but the players in his personal life are not so quick to understand. This sudden shift in focus unmoors the audience. The play does not come to a resolution, which is fine, but we are left uncertain as to what, if anything, Jack has taken away from this experience.
Whole Against the Sky is a good opportunity to see a serious work by a talented playwright, not completely developed but very nearly done.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should tell you that Donnelly has been an adjudicator at the Maryland One-Act Festival for the last two years. In 2005 I directed a play which he (among others) adjudicated. I don’t believe that this had any affect on my review but you may judge for yourself.
Whole Against the Sky, presented by Trumpet Vine Theatre Company at Theatre-on-the-Run at 3700 S. Four Mile Run in Arlington, runs Wednesdays through Saturdays (8 P.M.) until April 15. In addition, there will be two 2.30 Sunday matinees, on April 2 and April 9. Tickets are $20 and are available through [email protected] or 703.912.1649.