Reviewed by George Basler
The Chenango River Theatre deserves credit for “truth in advertising.” The Greene-based company has billed its current production, Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, as a comedy with heart, and that pretty much sums it up.
The play by Seattle-based playwright Katie Forgette is an engaging work that mixes copious laughs with dollops of Irish sentiment, which is only fitting since the main characters are an Irish-Catholic family coping with a series of family disasters in the bygone year of 1973.
A strong CRT cast does a first-rate job in delivering both the laughs and the sentiment. The result is a sparkling production that, except for some heavy-handed moments in the second act, moves at a brisk pace.
In other words, the play, which is making its world premiere at CRT, is a real crowd-pleaser.
Forgette grew up in a Catholic family herself, and she brings this background to the play. The action is told through the memory of 19-year-old Linda O’Shea, well played by Annie Winneg, as she looks back on a series of events that she terms her very own personal Saturday Night Massacre.
Her family is a collection of stock characters: a brusque father, a long-suffering mother, an imaginative younger sister with a crush on old movies, and a wise-cracking aunt who is going through a rough patch in her marriage. A pompous parish priest and the parish’s wickedly funny gossip monger also feature prominently in the action.
The play’s main strength is Forgette’s consistently witty dialogue that brings a sense of freshness to a well-worn situation.
A CRT blurb compares Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help to Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, and the comparison is an apt one. Like Simon, Forgette has a real knack for stringing together humorous one-liners. She also successfully weaves small, poignant moments into the action.
Most impressively, Forgette skillfully breaks down the fourth wall between the actors and the audience. The characters repeatedly step outside of the plot to comment on the action and lobby for their own monologues. The moments never seem forced or artificial and add to the humor.
Pulling off this style of play is challenging, but the CRT production makes it look easy. Drew Kahl directs with a steady hand, and the cast members — Winneg, Mike Boland, Traci Crouch, Heidi Weeks and Lisa Naso — give winning performances. Not only are they solid comic actors, but they bring sense of naturalism to their roles that makes the characters more than humorous stereotypes.
Special mention goes to Boland, who plays the three roles of the O’Shea father, the pompous parish priest and Betty Heckenbach, the parish gossip. Boland plays Betty in drag and is funny as all get out, mainly because he plays the role with no campy mannerisms or winking at the audience.
The production sputters somewhat in the second act when the aunt and younger sister hatch a plot to trick the priest. Forgette’s deft touch deserts her in this scene, and the vitriol level goes off the chart. The heavy-handed treatment means the laughs grind to halt. While Forgette treats the O’Shea family with great affection, despite their foibles, the priest is presented as a real jerk.
For the most part, though, Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, is a delightful piece of work that also carries some emotional heft. The emotional resonance comes through clearly in a coda at the end of the play when the characters talk directly to the audience about what their lives will be like after the play ends.
The ending is an effective bittersweet moment that the CRT cast pulls it off supremely well.
CRT made a good choice in staging the world premiere of Forgette’s play. I’m willing to bet money it will have an auspicious future in regional theater.
IF YOU GO: Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help will be performed through July 28 at Chenango River Theatre, 991 State Hwy., Greene. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $25 for all performances, except Saturday evenings, which are $27. For more information, visit chenangorivertheatre.org.