Thursday, February 4, 2010

Theater review: Searing 'Sins' a triumph at Florida Stage

Francisco Solorzano, foreground, and Gordon McConnell
in Sins of the Mother. (Photo by Ken Jacques)

By Hap Erstein

Athol Fugard sets most of his plays in South Africa, A.R. Gurney likes to explore the WASP culture of Buffalo, N.Y., and Israel Horovitz has cornered the market on tales of the rugged denizens of Gloucester, Mass.

Of the 70-plus plays he has written so far, many are set in the coastal town whose economy is so closely tied to the fishing industry. While the details of his characters’ lives are likely to be foreign to Florida Stage theatergoers, Horovitz writes with an understanding of humanity that has proven universal. In fact, he is the most produced American playwright in the history of France.

His latest work, Sins of the Mother, a story of sudden violence, revenge and forgiveness, has already had a couple of productions, so it is unusual for Florida Stage to become involved with the script at this point. But in honor of Horovitz’s 70th birthday last year, theaters around the world are paying tribute to the unassuming dramatist by collectively staging all of his plays, either in full productions or in readings.

Sins of the Mother is the Manalapan theater’s contribution to this global Horovitz festival, a script that is simply too good to turn down, particularly when the playwright is willing to come here and direct the play himself.

Be forewarned that each of the play’s two acts begin slowly, with seemingly idle chatter over mundane matters. But be assured that this is Horovitz’s crafty dawdle as he carefully calibrates his path to two searing climaxes. He draws us in with plenty of humor, as these gruff stevedores sift through the geography and interpersonal connections in a town where everyone knows each other, or thinks they do. Then gradually, methodically, the script heads towards twin conclusions that cut with a knife, both literally and figuratively.

It is interesting to note that Sins of the Mother began as a one-act play, only the first act of what is on view at Florida Stage. While that does seem to be a fully satisfying tale -- at least by intermission -- what lies ahead feels so organic and crucial to Horovitz’s theme that the first half then seems incomplete in retrospect.

The first act is set in a moribund dock workers’ union hall at a recession-shuttered Gloucester fish-processing plant. There the jobless -- aging Vietnam vet Bobby Maloney (Gordon McConnell), antagonistic needler Frankie Verga (Brian Claudio Smith), decent, but dense Dubbah Morrison (David Nail) and an outsider, Douggie Shimmatarro (Francisco Solorzano), drawn back home after years away -- come to have their unemployment forms signed. They shoot the breeze and goad each other, irritating long-festered wounds until simmering resentments boil over.

Act Two jumps ahead nine months to the wake of Bobby’s wife, who died from a venereal disease -- presumably AIDS, though it is never specified -- whose origin links more than a few of the characters. Hovering over the uneasy small talk of bereavement is the violent act that occurred just before intermission and now must be covered up. Spicing up the drama is the introduction of Frankie’s twin brother Philly (Smith again, in a remarkably versatile acting turn), an affluent Toyota dealer who seethes with anger, but not directed where the others expect.

McConnell heads the cast as the production’s father figure, a critical role in a play full of parent-child tensions. Alternately hot-tempered and teary-eyed, he gives a pitch-perfect performance that culminates in a eulogy laden with irony. The rest of the cast comes from other productions of the play and their seamless ensemble work justifies their importation. In his double roles, Smith is a standout, notably in a stunning second-act monologue of barely contained paternal hatred.

Richard Crowell devises two richly detailed, very solid sets, marvels in the cramped quarters that Florida Stage will soon be leaving. It will be his last design before the company picks up and moves to the Kravis Center’s Rinker Playhouse this summer.

Sins of the Mother marks the beginning of the end of an era, but with plays like this one, Florida Stage’s future seems assured, no matter where they perform.

SINS OF THE MOTHER, Florida Stage, 262 S. Ocean Blvd., Manalapan. Through March 7. Tickets: $45-$48. Call: (561) 585-or (800) 514-3837.

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