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A CurtainUp Review
A Stone Carver

It takes twenty years to make a stone carver. --- Agostino
Maybe he (Raff) doesn’t have your gift. Maybe he has other gifts. --- Janice
Wha gift? I break my ass for this gift. ---Agostino

Stone Carver Cast
Jim Iorio, Elizabeth Rossa & Dan Lauria (Photo: Cie Stroud)
The questionable legitimacy of Eminent Domain can be explained in simple terms: It allows one private rich and powerful party to take the property from another poorer and less powerful private party. In a recent case, Kelo vs. City of New London, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a small town in Connecticut had the authority to "take" the land and property of home and store owners by condemning it as "blighted," thus providing the way for businesses that would bring more tax revenue to the community.

The ruling, putting at risk the constitution sanctity of property (considered in the 5th Amendment), is being challenged now on a state by state basis. Each state will have to decide if any branch of the federal or state government has the inherent power and/or right with Eminent Domain to "take" and transfer private land, as long as they pay for it, to for-profit purchasers, mostly corporations. Usually, the most difficult issue in eminent domain cases is whether or not there was a "taking."

One may assume that 30 years ago when William Mastrosimone wrote A Stone Carver, that the issue of Eminent Domain was not making as many headlines as it is now. The play has had a life in regional theaters and appeared in a production Off-Broadway under the title of The Understanding that Mastrosimone is on record as disapproving. However, after considerable rewrites, it made a return and an impact earlier this season at Trenton’s Passage Theater where Mastrosimone, a Trenton native, has had a long-time artistic relationship. The play about an elderly stone carver who is told by the local government that he must vacate the home he built with his own two hands gains its social urgency from its topicality. But it is also the fact that Mastrosimone has written a play drawn compassionately from his own family history that brings to it an intensified and passionate reality. The playwright,, who is probably best know for his breakthrough play The Woolgathers (1981), the award-winning Extremities (1982) and the recent TV series Into The West, has had another and more recent play –The Afghan Women – optioned for Broadway.

In The Stone Carver, Mastrosimone’s demonstrates how one family’s personal tale can be filtered through a committed social consciousness. Under Robert Kalfin’s robust direction, the tale is buoyed by its confrontational directness as it is by the sheer emotional integrity of the three actors.

Agostino Malatesta (Dan Lauria) has his single barrel shotgun loaded and is prepared to use it at the slightest provocation. He has chosen to ignore let alone read the convoluted eviction notice that was sent to him months ago by the state authorities. A widower, he lives alone in a limestone house that he built thirty years ago, the only dwelling in a four block radius that hasn’t been razed by bulldozers. Within the kitchen area of his increasingly rat-infested home (grimly evoked by designer Nathan Heverin), he continues his work on a commission from a local church: a large sculpture of an angel whose face he has chiseled to resemble his wife Emma. On occasion he feels Emma’s presence in the room and speaks to her lovingly ignoring the reality that he knows is coming. There is more anger than love expressed when he is visited unexpectedly by his estranged and only son Raff (Jim Iorio) and his fiancée Janice (Elizabeth Rossa). The bitterness between father and son betan when Raff decided not to carry on as the 18th generation of stone carvers. Raff, who is the owner of a masonry company and a member of the town council, also has plans to run for mayor. He has been allowed to cross the barricades and given the time to try to convince his father to leave the house before he is arrested. At the same time, Raff is doubtful that he can resolve a long-standing hostility that exists between them.

The core of the play nevertheless involves the verbal and physical clashes between the tough inflexible old-world patriarch and the embittered son who is resolved to help his father through the crisis. But in the character of Janice, as played with nervy resolve by Rossa, we also see how an outsider willing to take on a battery of slurs, insults and humiliations, but unwilling to concede defeat, can win the heart and the mind of a presumed beast.

Despite Agostino’s unmerciful and often very funny teasing, a slow and deliberately testy communication develops between them, even as Raff’s patience with his implacable father reaches a boiling point. That point comes with a real slam-bang of a fight between the two men. Agostino goads Raff to put on the boxing gloves he used in his youth as an amateur fighter. The play is as much about a father’s and a son’s need to release long repressed anger as it is about the empowering ability of courage and conviction, often at war with each other. Jim Iorio is terrific as a chip off the old stubborn block, even as he hopes, possibly in vain, for his father’s approval.

For a while, it seems that Agostino has only his rage and his choice put-downs in his native Italian as a tool. But it is a powerful deception and one that soon becomes the only defense of a once proud man who feels let down by his family, his community and even the country he loves. Dan Lauria, who is best known as the Dad on the ABC series The Wonder Years, heartbreakingly shades Agostino’s unleashed furies with the regrets of things and times past. It is a touching performance, one that leaves us saddened not by what Agostino is about to leave behind but what has not been cherished.

A Stone Carver
By William Mastrosimone
Directed by Robert Kalfin
Cast: Dan Lauria, Jim Iorio, Elizabeth Rossa
Scenic Design: Nathan Heverin
Costume Design: Gail Cooper-Hecht
Lighting Design: Josh Bradford
Sound Design: Austin Duggan
Fight Director: B. H. Barry
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes (no intermission)
Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street (6th and Varick) 212/691 – 1555
From 7/18/06 to 9/03/06; opening 7/27/06
Tickets: $45 Tuesday to Thursday, $55 Friday to Sunday
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman based on matinee performance of July 23, 2006.

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