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|A CurtainUp Review
By Carolyn Balducci
Luigi Lunari's Our Fathers, first produced in Milan, Italy in 1998, has an interesting premise: what if the mentally disabled offspring of two historical figures -- Joseph P. Kennedy and Palmiro Togliatti -- met on some astral plane where they can articulate their feelings for their respective fathers?
The set, with its surreal spiral ramp and cross-shaped telephone pole, provides an other-worldly atmosphere. Though the play is a fantasy, the characters are based on living persons: Aldo Togliatti and Rosemary Kennedy both of whom lived in mental institutions for decades.
Most Americans know about the Kennedys, but little about Palmiro Togliatti, the cofounder of the Italian Communist Party. Given this disparity, even a play as well-written well-translated and as well acted as this one has only a slender chance of getting its dramatic point across to an American audience.
Lunari conceived of the two fictional characters, Aldo (John Wojda) and Kathleen (Mica Bagnasco) as having parallel destinies. According to him, both were crushed by their respective fathers in the name of ideology.
In the play, Aldo respects his father as a courageous historical figure, though he is contemptuous of the Kennedy wealth and ambition. From Aldo's point of view, he and his mother (Rita Montagnano, a fervent Communist who shared Togliatti's imprisonment in Spain and Russian exile) were dumped once Togliatti grew in stature in the post-war political arena and took a "trophy bride."
The origin of Aldo's psychological problems is never fully explained He expresses anger at Togliatti's second marriage and public display of an adopted a daughter but does not condemn this as evidence of hypocrisy on the Marxist father's part.
Rosemary is another living proof of the madness of doctrinaire ideology and her story is more compelling than that of Aldo's. She was mildly retarded and rebellious. Her dating and drinking in a manner unacceptable for proper young women in the 1930's could, if exposed, have caused a scandal that would have affected the political hopes of the Kennedy brothers.
Horrifying as it now seems, the treatment Joseph Kennedy selected was a lobotomy, surgical severing of nerves in the brain, in what was then considered the best treatment. It was a dangerous operation and most patients had serious physical side effects.
As it turned out, Rosemary's operation was actually botched. She never recovered full physical mobility and her mental capacity was severely reduced, something neither her father nor doctors intended.
Since the play portrays Rosemary as both articulate and disturbed, once it is made clear that she has been lobotomized, nothing makes complete sense. The length and nature of the relationship between Aldo and Rosemary is also confusing.
Some dialogue indicates that they have only just met, then it seems that they met a few days before, other dialogue indicates a four-month timeframe. As their conversation goes back and forth, they reveal some things about their past, sometimes re-enacting episodes by morphing into their own or one another's parents. . As their discussions move forward, a comparison of their fathers' sexual adventures leads to the possibility of intimacy between them.
On an astral plane, of course. The play ends on a positive note, with Aldo embracing Rosemary and singing her a lullaby which happens to be the Communist anthem, the I"nternazionale" -- the only song his father ever sang to him.
Lunari's presentation of two characters who step seamlessly into the roles of parents or physicians, has merit. It is significant that this play, while ostensibly political, is able to explore the sensibilities of the mentally disabled.
Bagnasco and Wojda do a fine job in handling the long and complex speeches and transitions, and their physical style and gestures are super. The play is marred by the unfortunate decision of having Aldo speak not only with a tedious "Italian" accent but with a stutter. (Lunari's notes indicate the contrary. "at first they speak their own languges.then by a theatrical miracle, they find a common language." ) This renders many of Wojda's lines irritatingly difficult to comprehend. This is not helped by having Mica Bagnasco, a native Italian with a faint accent, play her part as a Bostonian.
The strength of Our Fathers comes from the two fine portrayals of characters who, though mentally disabled, are three-dimensional, dignified and heroic. It also provides an opportunity to see the work of a noted, internationally produced Italian playwright.
For a review of another play about Rosemary Kennedy, called Rosemary, go here.
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