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A CurtainUp Review
Unspoken Prayers

by Julian and Rhona Frazin

The world premiere of Claudia Allen's Unspoken Prayers at Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater comes at the timely juncture when the country is engaged in moral, ethical and legal debate on the imposition of the death penalty.

The audience is introduced to a seemingly unremarkable, middle class family just before Christmas. Taylor Miller, best known for her long-running portrayal of Nina Cortlandt in the ABC daytime drama All My Children portrays Billie-a mother whose world is suddenly shattered with the senseless murder of her youngest daughter Sara (Karlie Nurse) by a lost and angry 16-year-old classmate. The entire family is in turmoil-searching for insights in Sara's diary and the diary of her killer. Frank (Rob Riley) is a politically conservative, hard working, and often hard drinking husband and devoted father. Middle sister Becca (Kim Wade) is a smart talking, ultra liberal college student, not so far beyond high school that she can't remember hanging out with the alienated "stoners" and "poets", smoking cigarettes and weed in the school parking lot.

The story trickles out in short dramatic spurts, punctuated by ominous blackouts, following the family from the initial apprehension of a child late in returning from choir practice to the grim reality of identification at the county morgue and the ensuing pain, anger, and search for retribution and reconciliation. The quick succession of scenes, some as brief as a minute, is a troublesome dramatic device which gives the work the tone of a survey course-efficiently examining each emotional swing, the predictably intrusive television reporters, the well-meaning, but shallow church members, fear, superstition and sexual estrangement.

With no thread of continuing dialog, playwright Allen skims the surface-parading forth the gamut of emotional responses while rarely providing dramatic punch. Director Dennis Zacek struggles with his actors to find depth in the thinly written characters as they follow their separate paths of conscience and discovery when asked by the prosecuting attorney (Velma Austin) whether they want her to pursue the death penalty for the sixteen year old defendant.

The enraged father is certain of the righteousness of retribution, as he sputters "All we've got is getting even." He dons a clown face and fright wig to call attention to his family's plight-causing daughter Becca to wryly observe "Daddy has gone off and joined the media circus." Later, in one of the plays strongest and most passionate scenes, the two quite literally spar and debate the biblical view of the death penalty with dueling quotations from both Old and New Testament. In the end, they agree to disagree, as they tenderly hug and acknowledge that channeling the rage of their loss into dialectic argument may disturb the uncertain Billie, but "it works for us."

In an effort to resolve her uncertainty, Billie takes a bus up to Death Row at the State Penitentiary. On the way she meets Edna, the mother of Big Bob, a killer of an elderly couple, who after eight years has but a few months to live. The two women become "friends," commiserating in their mutual losses and misfortunes. Later she meets the son, who, having found God is pragmatically facing death, in the play's most convincing performance by Kenn E. Head.

Borrowing a page from HBO's award-winning television series, Six Feet Under, dead Sara reappears to all of her surviving family members to say her good-byes and bring a note of hope into their troubled lives. While Unspoken Prayers deals with very real and painful issues in oversimplification. The recent production of The Exonerated, ( review of NYC production), a play based upon actual interviews with innocent persons who narrowly escaped death at the hands of the state, was less preachy and much more realistic. Still, the stories of the families left in the wake of murder are ones that must be told, and Victory Gardens, the 2001 Regional Theatre Tony winner, and Claudia Allen should be commended for bringing these stories to the stage.

Unspoken Prayers
Written by Claudia Allen
Directed by Dennis Zacek
Cast in alphabetical order: Velma Austin (Edna and other roles); Brad Harbaugh (Frank's Boss and other roles); Kenn E. Head (Big Bob and other roles); Taylor Miller (Billie); Karlie Nurse (Sara); Rob Riley (Frank); Kim Wade (Becca)
Set Design: Patrick Kerwin
Costume Design: Kristine Knanishu
Lighting Design: Jeff Pines
Original Music and Sound Design: William J. Norris
Running time: 90 minutes, without an intermission
Victory Gardens Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue, 773-871-3000,
3/21/03-5/04/03; opening 3/31/03
Reviewed by Julian and Rhona Frazin based on 3/31/03 performance

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