It's a fine match. Laura Harrington's 1996 Cauder Competition award winning play
"Mercy" and Shakespeare & Company, the winner of the 3rd Annual Boston Theater
Award for "continued excellence in theatre" teaming up for the play's world premiere. Theater
goers should not be scared off by the advance publicity stories that described the play as "special"
and "poetic" -- adjectives all too often interpreted as "difficult" by entertainment-happy
audiences."Mercy" is poetic, but in its most successful scenes quite wonderfully so and
even when it falls shorts of its high spots, the stuff of an absorbing and memorable two hours.
The heart-wrenching story of a woman who wants the gift of one more day of life to rewrite her
troubled family history is one anyone who has known love and loss and thought about their own
mortality can relate to.
The first act succeeds admirably in picturing the forces that have driven each of the Morning children into a dark and lonely corner of despair. The revelations about the emotional bonds that tie them together and tear them apart are played out on a set that imbues the stage with theatricality, giving a vivid sense of various locations along the Gloucester coast with a few simple props. No smoke rising from the ground or moving sets, just the playwright's eloquent language, eloquently delivered.
Annette Miller, a newcomer to Shakespeare & Company, plays the tragic, metaphorically named Faith Morning with enormous sensitivity. Her life as an artist, a passionate lover and often devouring mother is ending, and she is determined to transform her death into one last creative effort. This last burst of creativity will be aimed at rescuing her family from their alienation from one another and themselves. Elizabeth Aspenlieder is fine as Annie, the family flower child conceived in Faith's middle age to fill the void left by the beloved son who went to war. She is a visionary who hates her "gift" since the only visions she has are of death. She has tried to be free of her clairvoyance (and her mother) through seven years of iniquitous wandering, aimless except for her goal of finding her lost older brother. Now she is home again, willed there by her childhood lover, (Jason Asprey) and still fighting her mother's hold on her. Even at her mother's bedside she resists this powerful connection but when the dying Faith pleads with her to take her hand, we feel her anger ebbing away. When Faith clasps Annie's hand to her heart and declares "Life and death take one another's hand" we rejoice that Annie will grant her mother's wish to die at home, and we bleed. Shakespeare & Company founding member and director of the training and voice, Dennis Krausnick, plays the husband a boat builder who works frantically on a new boat to sublimate some of his despair about his dying wife. When he gets on his knees to tell the audience his prayers for Faith --first for life, then for the pain to ease up, then for a good night, then for a good hour and finally "to let her go" -- he reaches to our very gut.
The play's most fully-rounded character and standout performance is that of the middle child Liz who sees herself as the only sane Morning and consequently the family outsider. The lovely Corinna May, who was so admirable as Lily Bart in last year's production of "The House of Mirth" and as Edith Wharton in "Songs of the Heart", (running all summer in Wharton's parlor-turned-theater), delivers yet another stellar performance. She enters the stage the picture of the self-contained, conventional New England homemaker. Her blonde hair is sedately coiled around her face. Her dress is dark and prim. However, she is clearly not the ordinary, calm woman she seems to be. Her passion for the abusive husband she knows she is well rid of but who "makes her feel alive between the fear" boils beneath the cool exterior. And while Liz thinks her sister is crazy to take the dying Faith out of the hospital she speechlessly acquiesces when in response to her "what if she dies on the way home" Annie snaps "then she'll die in my arms?"
So much for the good news. The not so good news is that while Act 1 leaves you gasping for breath and impatient for more, Act 2 disappoints. Faith gets her extra day of life. Unfortunately, when this gift from God includes the return of the son who disappeared after serving in the Vietnam War, "Mercy" suddenly takes a turn toward cliche. Although looking every bit the alienated veteran Walton Wilson cannot save this character from seeming to arrive from left field and raising issues that seem as out of place as he. Foster Dale,(Jason Asprey), Annie's childhood lover, and the playwright's apparent symbolic catalyst of faith and hope (and mercy?), assumes a larger role in this act--but, alas, his persona, like that of the narrator in the well-written and delineated best-selling novel "Snow Falling on Cedar" lacks the necessary charisma.
All this said, the final act, while not on a par with the first, is not a disaster. The changes in the set are wonderful. Liz is as convincing in her teenaged outfit as she was when she was dressed as a proper matron. The dual love scene between Annie and Foster and Faith and Steven are filled with poignancy and drama. For the most part, the playwright succeeds in her stated mission to "explore the choices we make about how we live and die" and to "question the exigencies of free will, familial loyalties, clairvoyance and the values of a meaningful life and a truly humane demise." Perhaps therein lies the problem that keeps this play from being as good as it could be: a problem of too much of a good thing.
"Going Places" (in the Bershires)
© Copyright July 1996 Elyse Sommer