|L-R: Peter Cormican, James Michael Lambert, Paula Ewin, Kate Kearney-Patch, Emily Batsford, Kendall Rileigh, and Mark Banik in THE BRIGHTNESS OF HEAVEN. Photo by John Quilty.|
From time immemorial, children have rebelled against their parents, testing the bonds that tie them to prior generations, their real challenge being to stretch or loosen those bonds sufficiently to accommodate the new world into which they were born without breaking the old bonds entirely. For their part, parents have always attempted to inculcate their own religious, social and moral rules and beliefs in their children, the challenge for them being to do so without completely alienating their kids through a heavy-handed dismissal of the very real changes taking place in their world. And never was that more true than in the 1960s and 1970s, when the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Liberation Movement, the Gay Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and Watergate all came together to create one of the biggest societal upheavals in American history.
That is what The Brightness of Heaven by Laura Pedersen, now enjoying its Off Broadway premiere at the Cherry Lane Studio Theatre on Commerce Street in Greenwich Village, is all about: the inevitable intergenerational strife that all too often tears many families apart but that leaves those who survive it all the stronger for having dealt with it successfully, once it has played out. The play is set in Buffalo, NY in 1974, in the home of the Kilgannon family and it is likely to resonate especially well with those who share the characters’ Irish Catholic backgrounds. But the play has much more universal appeal than that and those of entirely different ethnic and religious backgrounds should be fully able to appreciate and enjoy the play’s message. (I certainly did, despite being Jewish and of mixed Russian and Austrian descent myself.)
The play’s action takes place on the day that a surprise party is to be held for Ed Kilgannon (Peter Cormican) at St. Aloysius Catholic High School, as a tribute to him on the 30th anniversary of his having joined the school as its music teacher. (Ed once dreamt of having a successful career in show business but was forced to settle for the life of a music teacher instead; with the help of a whisky bottle, he seems to have made his peace with that). Many of his former students are expected to show up for his party but, most importantly, his family will be there.
That, of course, will include his wife, Joyce (Kate Kearney-Patch), who once aspired to be a nun but ultimately opted to become a good Catholic wife and mother instead and who now teaches Home Economics at St. Aloysius; Brendan (Bill Coyne), Ed and Joyce’s first-born prodigal son (but still their favorite) who has been no more successful than was his father before him in seeking a theatrical career and who shares his father’s taste for the sauce; Dennis (Mark Banik), their middle and highly responsible son, on whom they rely for considerable support; and Kathleen (Kendall Rileigh), their successful and very strong-willed youngest child whose life choices are most at odds with those of her parents. Also in attendance will be Mary Jablonski (Paula Ewin), Ed’s widowed sister and her two children: Grace (Emily Batsford), her 28-year old, unmarried, clinically depressed daughter; and Jimmy (James Michael Lambert), her gay 24-year old son who would prefer to be out of the closet but who is continually pressured by his family to conceal his sexual orientation.
We meet all of the actors at the Kilgannon family home where they have come together for dinner before going on to St Aloysius (where Joyce is determined that they will again do “the family act,” their traditional song and dance routine). The conceit is that their real “family act” is the one to which we’re all being made privy onstage, the one in which they all pretend to be other than they really are, whether by choice or under pressure from the other members of their family.
The play is set within the context of the Irish Catholic faith which consumed the lives of the members of the older generation. As Joyce readily admits: “You children don’t understand. The Church was the whole world for us. That’s where our friends and social life were. We went from Mass to Sunday School to Thursday Night CYO to Friday Night Fish Fry.” And implicit in that was the conviction that the “hereafter” or the “next life” was of far greater consequence than the real world around us which was perceived as little more than a testing ground for the ”world to come.” Thus, Mary can seriously justify her having urged her children to wear clean underwear not for any reasons of health or comfort in this world but because “whatever clothes you’re wearing when you die are what you’ll have on throughout all eternity.” And when Mary discloses that she has “thought about taking my own life,” Joyce doesn’t seek to dissuade her by pointing out everything she’d be losing in this world but, rather, exclaims “Why Mary! You wouldn’t go to Heaven and spend eternity with Ronnie [Mary’s son who died in Vietnam]! – and that, remarkably, really seems to have been the strongest argument Joyce could have made to her sister-in-law in her moment of despondency.
It is this attitude toward the primacy of the hereafter, the Church, and the Church’s rules regarding sex, abortion and homosexuality, that the members of the younger generation all seem to be rebelling against, each in his or own way and some more strongly than others. As Kathleen puts it: “much as I’d like to go to Heaven, I’m more interested in Heaven on Earth – a place where all God’s creations are at home, complete with all the glorious faults, differences, and desires that He in His infinite wisdom bestowed upon us.” Brendan’s alcoholism; Grace’s decision to see a secular therapist rather than a priest in dealing with her psychological problems; Jimmy’s overt acceptance of his homosexuality; and even Dennis’ decision to teach at a public school rather than a Catholic school - all are expressions of the same generational shift in values and attitudes away from the Church’s teachings.
Depending upon your point of view, you might see the four male characters as strong and admirable and the four female characters as far less worthy. It was Ed, after all, to whom Kathleen turned in her moment of greatest need and who has kept her secrets – not her mother. It is Dennis who can always be counted on by his parents when they need help, not his sister. Brandan does manage to overcome his alcoholism, at least temporarily, so as to be there for his father on his special day. And even Jimmy defers to his family by downplaying his sexual orientation in their presence. Joyce and Mary, on the other hand, are so self-righteously stuck in their ways that they cannot really countenance homosexuality, abortion, pre-marital sex, and even intermarriage as anything other than sin or an offense against God and the Church, resulting in eternal damnation. Kathleen is a headstrong young woman who, despite her business success, seems to have made all the wrong choices in her personal life and who appears to be concerned only for her only life, with little thought for her parents’ well-being. And Grace is so psychologically damaged and depressive that there is not much good that can be said about her.
But it all can be looked at quite the other way around: maybe it’s really the women on top and the men toward whom we ought be dismissive. There is no question but that Kathleen is the strongest willed character in the play: she has succeeded in becoming the first female manager at her bank at the tender age of 23 and in 1974 she was clearly well ahead of her time in refusing to let anyone but herself control her body and her life. Difficult as it may be for Mary, given her religious values, she never rejects her gay son. Joyce, too, can always be counted on to be there for her children, should push come to shove: she might not approve of her daughter’s life style but she’ll always be there for her. (When Kathleen angrily attacks her mother, saying “You’ll never change!” her mother’s response may say it all: “No I won’t Kathleen. And my greatest hope for your child is that you’re always there for him or her. For the most part, that means not changing.”) Even Grace merits our respect for seeking medical help for her condition, rather than relying on religious guidance. But when we look at the men we realize that while Ed may have been there for Kathleen when she most needed him, he’s never willing to stand up to Joyce, apparently modeling himself after Mary’s husband Joseph in the Bible who never speaks a word. Both he and Brandan are alcoholics, after all, and they may have other weaknesses that they have kept secret to boot. Brandan may have sought a theatrical career simply to appease his father and Dennis may have become a school teacher simply because that was the easiest route to follow. Even Jimmy, eager to be out of the closet, doesn’t seem to have the guts to come out all the way.
So which view is correct? Both! None of us are all of a piece and the characters in this play are no exception. They have their strengths and their weaknesses, their good points and their bad, and it is a credit to Ms Pedersen, to Ludovica Villar Hauser, the play’s director, and to the entire cast that they have succeeded so well in conveying their multi-layered personae. Or as Ed responded, when Kathleen told him that sometimes she wondered who he really was: “Different things to different people. But I’ll always be your father and I’ll always love you. And that’s been my favorite role of all.”