'Sins of the Mother:' Dark Humor Meets Menace
Sins of the Mother
Directed by Israel Horovitz
Set Design, Jenna McFarland Lord; Costume Design, Ashley Preston; Lighting Design, Russ Swift; Sound Design, Ben Emerson; Production Stage Managers, Marsha Smith and Kayla G. Sullivan; Fight Choreographer, Robert Walsh
CAST: Robert Walsh, Bobby Maloney; Francisco Solorzano, Douggie Shimmatarro; Christopher Whalen, Frankie Verga and Philly Verga; David Nail, Dubbah Morrison
Performances through September 13 at Gloucester Stage Company
Box Office 978-281-4433 or www.gloucesterstage.org
The Gloucester Stage Company concludes its 30th anniversary season with the New England premiere of Sins of the Mother, written and directed by Founding Artistic Director Israel Horovitz. The darkly comic play invites us into the world of the struggling Gloucester fishing trade, where past is prologue for five local men whose lives are inextricably intertwined by events beyond their control and people who cause them pain.
Characterized by Horovitz's strong writing and trademark ear for dialect and language, Sins of the Mother is a compelling story well staged and well acted. It is safe to say that the director knows what the playwright had in mind, but Horovitz-the-director's stagecraft enhances Horovitz-the-writer's work by making excellent use of the three-sided platform and dramatic blocking of the four actors. He has the knack of building or diffusing tension by their positioning among numerous folding metal chairs in the first act, and raises questions for the audience with the presence of a casket onstage after intermission. We might think we know who is in there, but we cannot be sure until things get rolling.
"I saw The Perfect Storm on tv and started thinking about Gloucester," offers Douggie Shimmatarro (Francisco Solorzano) as the motivation for returning to his hometown after years of self-imposed exile in Florida. He is welcomed by Bobby Maloney (Robert Walsh), the elder statesman of the fishermen who matter-of-factly describes his service in Vietnam as a checklist of killed "gooks," mosquito bites, and dope smoking, no big deal. He seems more stirred up to learn that Douggie's late mother was Louise Martino, but he quickly regains his equilibrium and moves on, leaving Douggie and us to wonder about her significance.
It doesn't take long to find out once co-workers Frankie Verga (Christopher Whalen) and Dubbah Morrison (David Nail) arrive and engage in a rapid-fire game of Gloucester genealogy. This banter is funny and razor-sharp, full of local colloquialisms such as "wicked smaht" and "I'm just sayin'." Frankie is an irritant who gets under the skin of the others and jabs his finger in their eyes (figuratively) until everything spills out about Louise, angering Bobby and offending Douggie. Dubbah attempts to stick a cork in it, but Frankie is not to be contained and continues to spew his venom, sealing his own fate.
Like the industry that has employed them, these men are rotting from the inside out. They show up weekly at the union meeting room of the fish-processing plant to get their cards signed for the unemployment office, verifying that they looked for work, but that there is none. They come out of habit, more than hope, and to reinforce their shared sense of community and continuity. It is not so much that they like each other, but they are intimately familiar with one another, in the way that people from the same neighborhood know everybody's business because they hear it through open windows or see it played out on the street. They went to school together and know all the same people, even their namesakes who are unrelated and live in different parts of town. But the main thing that they have in common and that drives the story is a dirty secret that informed their childhoods, simmers just below the surface, and threatens to erupt with a force of volcanic proportions and consequences.
In act two, Frankie's identical twin brother, nemesis, and polar opposite Philly Verga (Christopher Whalen) appears in dark suit and dark glasses to pay his respects. Where Frankie never crossed the bridge out of Gloucester and never went to Boston, Philly moved to Quincy twelve years ago and never looked back. He is a successful owner of a car dealership with numerous salesmen working for him, and holds both his brother and father in contempt. A self-made man, he credits Oprah for helping him learn to let go and he frequently takes deep breaths while circling his arms up over his head, exhaling as he thrusts his open palms out to the side. "My secret," he tells Bobby, Douggie, and Dubbah, "is to marry Oprah to Jesus," explaining his behavior. Although he maintains a practiced calm on the surface, behind his dark glasses he oozes menace primarily because no one can see his eyes to really read him. When Philly finally tells his back story in a precise and controlled tone, the anger bubbles out between gritted teeth and clenched fists, making the others quite uncomfortable and fidgety.
Now if none of this sounds quite like a recipe for humor, don't be misled. Horovitz writes with an edgy wit and these four actors deliver it with great timing, body language, and facial expressions. Whalen manages to infuse each of the twin characters he portrays with something laughable, as well as their individual brands of menace. Nail, who originated the role of Dubbah in the world premiere of Sins by Harlequin Productions in Olympia, Washington, brings a sweetness and sensitivity to the big lug who is somewhat less developed than the other characters. Douggie and Bobby are more complex, and Solorzano and Walsh connect strongly from the opening scene, skillfully laying out the pieces of the intricate puzzle that will take shape as the play progresses. Walsh is the strong center of the ensemble as Bobby tries to keep the lid on the potential powder keg.
Pitch-perfect accents and distant waterfront sounds of gulls, inboard motors, and foghorns add to the realism of the GSC production. Jenna McFarland Lord places the fishermen in a spare, depressing room at the plant, and then plunks them into an over-decorated, decidedly feminine living room where their discomfort is palpable. The men appear to have lived in Ashley Preston's work clothes for quite some time, in sharp contrast to the Sunday best they squirm into for the wake. Lighting Design by Russ Swift is especially effective in the epilogue at a funeral home. Further atmosphere is lent by mournful strings and crackling thunder with Sound Design by Ben Emerson.
Sins of the Mother succeeds in accurately portraying a dying industry while using its demise as a metaphor for the lives of the characters. The titular maternal figure never appears, but looms large in the events of past and present for Bobby, Douggie, Dubbah, and Frankie. However, for Philly, the one guy who got out, it is a different sort of mother, arguably an "earth mother" who had an impact on his life in a good way. She taught him to let go of the people who cause him pain and move on. Evidently, she also inspired the playwright to come up with a clever conclusion. Thanks, Oprah.
This production is GSC's entry in The 70/70 Horovitz Project, a year-long world-wide event celebrating Horovitz's 70th birthday with readings and/or productions of 70 of his plays by theatre companies around the globe.
Photo credit: Shawn G. Henry (David Nail, Robert Walsh, Francisco Solorzano)