BWW Review: I'M GONNA PRAY FOR YOU SO HARD at the REP Features Power-House Performances and a Tense Night at the Theatre
Before the REP's I'M GONNA PRAY FOR YOU SO HARD at the Pittsburgh Playhouse's Studio Theatre began, I jotted down a couple of notes about the set and how it made me feel: Set looks very lived in, yet there is this underlying feeling of emptiness and desolation. Dim environment and doesn't feel very inviting. Wouldn't be surprised if only one person lived in this apartment. Something is missing and just feels off. Something is NOT right.
"Something is NOT right" may have been the understatement of the century, regarding the plot of I'M GONNA PRAY FOR YOU SO HARD. Immediately, the audience is made aware of the fact that there is an extreme amount of tension and discomfort in this show from the opening seconds. Before the show began, there was a prolonged blackout with a swelling of dramatic music and the minute it climaxed, the lights came up abruptly with a disconcerting shout from Martin Giles.
Talking about two-person shows is sometimes more difficult than talking about larger casts. Two-person shows require that both performers are top-notch, always engaging and never giving off phony or shallow performances. Neither performer really has a cast of people to fade behind and use as a crutch to mask their flaws. Two-person shows are really, really difficult to pull off. Thankfully, the two performers from this show were more than up to the challenge.
Martin Giles (David) is simply superb in this production. There are many difficult theatrical male roles that require stupendous amounts of stamina, both physically and emotionally. Willie Loman from Death of a Salesman, Troy from Fences, and Stanley from A Streetcar Named Desire all come to mind for example. David from I'M GONNA PRAY FOR YOU SO HARD could fit right in with that crowd. David is a truly despicable man. He's had success as an artist (specifically as a writer), but enough to provide him with happiness. He has a serious addiction with drugs and alcohol. He's emotionally and, most likely, physically abusive with his daughter and he's the worst kind of narcissist. He's filled with hate and contempt for just about everybody, himself included. He's utterly pathetic, to the point where audiences can almost pity him.
Martin Giles is able to capture every single one of David's nuances and brilliant flaws exceptionally. From the moment the show began, there didn't seem to be a single trace of Giles in the character. He was transformative, allowing himself to be engulfed entirely by the twisted and sick man. He took on a completely different walk and pattern-of-speech than his own and it was absolutely thrilling. Giles' David was completely abhorrent, but so incredibly watchable. I couldn't take my eyes off of him. Every single action of his was chaotic and flawed and filled with stark emptiness.
His relationship with his daughter Ella was sickening to watch. It's rare that a production makes me hold my breath out of uneasiness and worry for something terrible to happen onstage, but Giles provided me with copious amounts of these moments. I found myself fearful that Giles' David would eventually go too far past the line, become too terrible and cruel and inappropriate with his daughter that he would become absolutely irredeemable. Theatre is not supposed to make the audience feel comfortable. It's only goal should be to make audiences feel SOMETHING, and Martin Giles made me feel quite a bit. At one point near the end of Act I, Giles utters a line so horrifying and repulsive that I was completely flabbergasted. I won't soon forget the image of him drunkenly singing Somewhere from West Side Story as his daughter heaved furiously into the trash can.
As David's daughter, Ella, Cathryn Dylan was an absolute delight. I believe that she had the more difficult job of the two performers. In fact, for the first 20 or so minutes of the show, I wasn't completely onboard with her as a character. A lot of her lines were very repetitive, completely reactionary, and somewhat annoying. Thankfully, as the show progressed, so did the emotional depth of Ella which in turn allowed the staggeringly brilliant performance of Dylan to be on full-display.
Ella is a complex character, to say the least. She's an aspiring actress, desperate for the approval of the theatrical community and even more so, desperate for approval from her belligerent and cruel father. One gets the idea that she probably wouldn't have been an actress if it wasn't for her father being so involved in theatre. She's emotional, insecure, slightly-neurotic and fearful of her future, and her father doesn't make things any easier for her (even if he thinks that he does).
Dylan's portrayal of Ella was breathtaking. Ella was clearly the character that the audience should have been rooting for (even if she wasn't the greatest person herself) and immediately upon seeing how David consistently treated her poorly, she won our support. As an audience, we were happy to watch her and we hoped that she would find the strength and courage to escape her father's terrible grasp and become her own person, no longer desperate to find validation from somebody who was so awful to her.
There were multiple moments throughout the show that seemed to get a little to close for comfort between Ella and David, to the point that it would stress the audience out (in a good way). Dylan masterfully portrayed Ella as the victim of a relationship with a severe power-imbalance, showcasing naivety and earnestness that one would most likely have if they found themselves in such a warped and creepy father-daughter relationship. It was clear that Dylan's Ella had a sense that the way her father treated her wasn't okay, but she almost excused it because it was her father and she was clueless to the fact that normal relationships weren't supposed to be like that.
As creepy and as horrible as the relationship dynamic between the two was, the pair also made sure to find moments where they truly did connect and they seemed to find moments of levity and blissful joy. This was particularly effective because it made the tense and dark moments that much more horrifying, and also made everything have a bit more sadness and emptiness because we as an audience saw how great the relationship actually could have been.
Act II was incredibly different from Act I, but I can't go into it without getting into spoilers. I was very impressed with how much it completely subverted my expectations for both characters, and the dramatic changes they both went through to get from where they started to where they end up. Neither actor resembles who they were in the previous act, which was remarkably impressive (especially Dylan, who gets more of the prominent role in the second act).
Much of the directing was very strong. The space that the actors had to work with was very small and intimate, but director Robert Turano moved his two players around the stage in a very simple and effective strategy. Neither actor ever seemed to be moving or doing too much and they always seemed to be moving with purpose, while managing to make great use of the space. Turano's touch with having David consistently smash the ashtray into the trashcan was especially haunting and bone-chilling. My only gripe is that I wish Turano encouraged the actors to play around and find some more humor in the piece. The script is obviously very dark and very tense, but there were moments of comedy that could've been taken a little bit further, partially to relieve the audience of it's tension and allow them to breathe, partially because dark and moody drama for two hours with no levity can get somewhat monotonous and emotionally exhausting. Regardless, Turano made a bold choice about playing the piece as dark as he did and with what he and his actors were going for, it was very effective.
Sound Designer StEve Shapiro should be commended for his work on this production. On multiple occasions, the sound was perfectly utilized to help add an ambience and undercurrent feeling of tension and mood of uneasiness. It continuously built-up and built-up and every single time the audience expected there to be some catharsis, there never was. I cannot emphasize enough how effective this was. The sound production in this show epitomizes why the Tony Awards should still have a Best Sound Design category. Bravo!
Dan Kendgia's first lighting design at The Playhouse was more than serviceable. Like the sound, the use of light worked rather well in aiding the mood and tension of the piece. Kendgia's design was especially crisp at the ending of both acts. Stephanie-Mayer Staley's scenic design was also superb. The clutter and mess of the set were a beautiful metaphor for the messiness and clutter filling both of the character's lives, while the center of the set, the table the two spent the majority of their time at was starkly empty, sort-of reflecting how the characters felt on the inside.
Do not go to I'M GONNA PRAY FOR YOU SO HARD if you're looking for a night of fun entertainment and a light-hearted story about family. Don't go see it if you're looking for a show that will make you "feel good" or to "escape from the problems of the real world." Go see the show because it is a staggeringly tense portrayal of a sick power-imbalance between a father and his daughter, featuring everything from emotional abuse and immense self-loathing to drug and alcohol addictions and the hope that people can overcome the problems that plague them, featuring some technical brilliance and two power-house performances.