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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
handicapped people in their formal attire

"If it wasn’t for Monsignor I would never have been able to have gone to St. Aloysius. He opened the door for a handicapped girl like me. Other schools wouldn’t even consider it. They considered me uneducable." — Agnes

(Photo: )
Playwright Kathryn Grant apparently isn’t fearful that the title of her new play (now having its world premiere) is not likely to make you say “hey, let’s catch this one.” You will nevertheless be rewarded with an engrossing drama set in 1968 Wilmington, Delaware, during a time remembered as one aflame with racial unrest.

The scene is a hotel dining room (graciously designed by Joseph Gourley); the occasion is a black-tie fundraiser for people with disabilities. It is here amidst the outside turbulence enveloping the city that two Catholic-raised adult sisters, perhaps unconsciously picking up on the tension brewing outside, feel compelled to unleash their suppressed feelings. This is particularly true for Theresa who, besides turning from her faith, is harboring a life-time of resentment, jealousy, blame and bitterness and is ready to explode.

Agnes, a quadriplegic (Rachel Pickup) is a successful business woman who has devoted much of her time in support of the physically handicapped. As the event’s honoree, Agnes is prepared to make a speech, but she is not prepared for the ever growing cynical tone in her sister’s voice, the torrent of snide and condescending remarks that also finds their way towards the other characters. These include Eddie, a Korean war veteran with a prosthetic arm (David Harrell); Agnes’s African-American driver and store-front minister Reverend Biggs (Roland Sands), the tipsy Monsignor (are there any other kind?) (Edward Setrakian). Then there is the gentle, attractive and deaf Raymond (an endearing performance by deaf actor John McGinty) Agnes’s closest friend and companion who dances and “signs” with her and not much more.

Theresa has evidently reached a breaking point in her life. At first simmering then coming to a full boil, Hammel gives a heartbreakingly honest performance as the pregnant-once-again mother of six children and wife of an alcoholic who is tired of being the sister who failed except as a “baby breeder.” Barely able to cope with her sister being honored, she begins to rant and even badger the Monsignor about how things might have been different if she hadn’t been dismissed from school devoting her young life to helping the brighter Agnes get to classes in the preferred Catholic school that had no wheelchair access. Was it, however, Theresa’s inability to pass Latin that led her to be dismissed from school or rather the Monsignor’s way to absolve himself from a family indiscretion?

What a treat is was to see Pickup on the stage again after enjoying her performance last season in the Irish Repertory’s splendid revival of dancingatlughnasa11. She is marvelous as Agnes, who, despite her twisted arms and legs, is an unapologetic fighter to the finish. All the supporting performances are notable under John Wooten’s direction. His staging of a dance with Agnes (in a wheelchair) and Raymond is a particularly lovely climactic moment.

Having admired Grant’s previous play The Good Counselor which was a 2010 Premiere Stages Festival Award winner (a regional competition for new scripts) and awarded a New Play award citation from the American Theater Critics Association, I am again impressed with her gift for weaving deeply interpersonal problems through unsettling and contentious social issues. If there is always something new to reveal about the embittered family member who has sacrificed and relinquished everything in the care of one in need, then Grant has revealed it with a passion.

By Kathryn Grant
Directed by John Wooten

Cast: Rachel Pickup (Agnes), Lori Hammel (Theresa), John McGinty (Raymond), David Harrell (Eddie), Roland Sands (Reverend Biggs, Edward Setrakian (Monsignor Cooke)
Set Design: Joseph Gourley
Costume Design: Karen Hart
Lighting Design: Nadine Charlsen
Running Time: 2 hours including intermission
Premiere Stages, Kean University, 1000 Morris Ave, Union, N.J.
(908) 737 – 7469
Tickets: $30 ($20 for seniors, $15 for students)
Performances: Thursdays and Fridays at 8 PM; Saturdays at 3 and 8 PM; Sundays at 3 PM.
From 07/12/12 Opened 07/13/12 Ends 07/29/12
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 07/13/12

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