You know this place, although you may have never been here. There is a picture of Jack Kennedy, looking a little mischievous, on one wall. On another, the benevolent smile of His Holiness the Pope – Paul VI. On a recliner, Ed Kilgannon (Peter Cormican) slumbers, a copy of the Buffalo Courier-Express – a newspaper which stopped publishing in 1982 – covering his face. We are in working-class Buffalo, New York, about to watch the Kilgannon family go to Hell. It is 1974.
“The dream of safety has to disappear,” W.H. Auden once wrote, and for most of America, it disappeared right around then, when Watergate dissolved our political bonds, and our social bonds dissolved without any help. In The Brightness of Heaven (the title comes from Daniel 12:3), an honest and powerful – if somewhat rushed – story about that dissolution, the young stand in judgment of their elders, and vice versa, and both find the other deficient.
At one time Ed – who once dreamed of a life in the theater but became a schoolteacher instead – and his family had a musical act. His wife Joyce (Kate Kearney-Patch) wants to bring the act together again, to surprise Ed at a tribute given in his honor. But it turns out that the greatest Kilgannon Family Act was not the one that belted out show tunes. It was the one which embraced the chaste virtues of the Roman Catholic Church, and swore fidelity to its values.
Joyce’s values, and those of her devout sister-in-law Mary Jablonski (Paula Ewin), reflect the values of the community in which they lived: hardscrabble, working-class, overwhelmingly Catholic, Irish and Polish. In 1974, it was a few years away from the sixteen-year reign of the pugnacious Mayor Jimmy Griffin, but his militant Catholicism, enforced when necessary with the loving back of a mother’s hand, is the same guiding force that propels the Kilgannon and Jablonski families.
However, the Battleship Catholic here begins to take on water. Brendan (Bill Coyne), the Kilgannon’s older son, is a vagabond who works occasionally to support his fruitless theater auditions. Their daughter Kathleen (Kendall Rileigh) is secretly in defiance of Catholic teaching in half a dozen ways, and even good son Dennis (Mark Banik), who devotes himself to his parents, perhaps, at the expense of his own marriage, is suffused with resentment and rage. The Jablonskis are in even greater disarray: Mary’s husband has flown the coop; daughter Grace (Emily Batsford) is a sharp-tongued, hair-pulling depressive, and son Jimmy (James Michael Lambert) – well, he commits the Sin Which Dares Not Speak Its Own Name.
So for slightly more than an hour at the venerable Cherry Lane Theatre, we watch the dinner at which it all unravels – the illusion of shared values, of love and support, of fidelity to each other and to their larger community. To be honest, I could have stood to watch it unravel over a longer period of time. At its best, The Brightness of Heaven has an Albeean intensity to it, where home truths are leavened with savage wit (and perspective: Joyce wishes that the Kennedy’s family values would come back to the White House, and Mary bitterly accuses her son of imagining everyone is gay, even Elton John). But because the story is told in so brief a span of time, some of the characters are drained of subtlety and context, and become only mouthpieces.
Lambert’s Jimmy suffers the worst from this: as the story’s truth-teller, it is his job to level accusations at this absent father and even at Ed, so as to encourage the tale to its ultimate resolution. But with so much narrative work to do, he is never able to expose us to his true self. A gay man in 1974 Buffalo – especially one born to a devotedly Catholic family – would be full of pain and fear, but Lambert shows none of that here: his gay man could have walked straight from 2014’s Out Hotel, across the street from where I write this.
Ewin’s Mary and Kearney-Patch’s Joyce, too, veer close to caricature. We understand that Mary and Joyce are steadfast apostles of Catholic doctrine, but we don’t know why. In the occasional ripostes they fling at their wayward children, we have a hint of something behind mindless adherence to received wisdom, but a more complex appreciation of who they are and why they are that way will have to await further development.
But when playwright Laura Pedersen aims her skills at a character, she produces a satisfying, nuanced result. I’m thinking in particular of the work she does with Ed, which Cormican fully realizes. Ed is a man who has devoted his life to two things: his students, and keeping his wife off the boil. He loves a song and a drink, and the principal lesson he has learned from Christ is the forgiveness of sins. He is not a revolutionary, or even a hero, but men and women like him are the ones which keep families surviving, in the midst of all the pain and confusion. When you see Cormican as Ed you will see a man you recognize and, moreover, are glad to know.
And – I have to tell you – when he, Brendan, Jimmy and Dennis break out into “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” in barber-shop harmony, it will almost seem that they can keep the pain and confusion away.
Pedersen is a writer of impressive credentials. She has written a bestseller, Play Money, about her life on the trading floor of the Stock Exchange; her novel Going Away Party won the Three Oaks Award for fiction, her memoir Buffalo Gal received an honorable mention for the Eric Hofer Book Award. In 1994, President Clinton gave her an award as one of Ten Outstanding Young Americans, and this play was a finalist for the Maxim Maxumder New Play Competition. No wonder: it is grace full and powerful, and tells the truth. It will be even better if Pedersen elects to expand it.
The Brightness of Heaven is onstage through December 14th at Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St, NYC.
Details and tickets.