THE BASICS: FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE!, a family comedy? drama? by Buffalo born author Laura Pedersen closes Sunday, October 4 at 710 Main Theatre with only four performances left: Thursday at 7:30, Friday at 8, Saturday at 8, and Sunday afternoon at 2.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Set in Buffalo, at the end of winter, 1974, over one afternoon at the home of Ed and Joyce Kilgannon (music teacher and home-maker), we see the tensions that rocked America played out in the home (one large open set provides kitchen, dining room, and living room) of a Catholic family. With Buffalo references galore (a Father Baker line was added for this production) the play swings wildly between comedy and drama.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION
Since the opening nights, the actors, I am told, have settled in to the space and their roles. This was my Curtain Up! Choice and since it had played off Broadway and the cast had been brought up to Buffalo for this run, it was surprising how rough around the edges the performance was on the second night. There were a number of pauses as though the actors had forgotten their lines and after one line about ironing wash and wear flannel shirts, the older actors all cracked up and it took a while for them to settle. Of course, on a Curtain Up! Night, when one can debate which is more “lit” – the audience or the stage – this didn’t seem to bother the packed house.
Since seeing the play, I’ve had occasion to interview the playwright, Laura Pedersen, who was about 9 years old when the action on stage would have occurred. She feels that the 1970s were one of the most socially and culturally divisive periods in America. And, while the country seemed to be fragmenting at an alarming rate, the church, and in particular the Catholic Church, and Buffalo Catholics were working very hard to maintain some semblance of tradition and family and humility when so many were experimenting. Surprisingly, this play is not entirely autobiographical, although Pedersen feels that if you grew up in the Buffalo area, you were surrounded by Catholics, their calendar became your calendar, every day or night of the week had some church event, and if your best friend was Catholic, well, you almost were too.
What could be considered autobiographical is that most of the drama is centered on the Kilgannon’s youngest child, Kathleen, their only daughter (which describes the author) who is trying very hard to liberate herself from the traditional “Lucy and Ethel” roles of her mother and aunt – Joyce Kilgannon and Mary Jablonski.
Kathleen Kilgannon, who has gone to college and is now a recently promoted bank manager, is living with her boyfriend, who is of another faith, and struggles with birth control issues. In a Catholic family, you can see how she provides the most dramatic tension.
However, the other characters also have their issues. Brendan Kilgannon, the oldest child, has failed to make it big in the career his father has always hoped for. And, like his father, he drinks. Dennis Kilgannon, the middle child (a birth order which in most families results in the “lost child” or the “peacemaker”) is the “good son” who sacrifices for the family. And Ed’s sister, Mary Jablonski, has a family with issues, including a daughter whose repressive tendencies are exhibited by her pulling out her hair (but it could be anorexia, or cutting, you get the idea) while Mary’s son is openly gay (remember this is just five years after the Stonewall riots).
So, we’re dealing with a lot of stuff here. There’s more, but I don’t want to spoil some of the big moments.
All in all, the play, like the 1970s, is a bit all over the place. There are so many issues. Admittedly, race and politics are not important themes, so this is not everything including the kitchen sink. And, at the same time, even though the family name is Kilgannon, and they like to sing, and there is alcohol consumption, we don’t get the stereotypical depiction of “the Irish” or “the Polish” either. However, the swings between low comedy (Buffalo jokes) and high drama make the play a little schizophrenic.
If this play were going to be further developed, I would suggest downplaying the supporting characters’ issues, and focusing a little more attention, earlier in the play, on Kathleen. The plot, such as it is, centers around preparing a surprise party for the father, and how everyone is reacting to this. Pederson has done a great job in avoiding stereotypes and cartoon roles, but has so much texture and back story that there is no one central character. If that is Kathleen, she isn’t brought out enough. But, perhaps that’s the point of the play. In a family, we can’t have stars. Everyone must play a role. Humility is what holds it together.
Upon exiting the theater, I was asked “how did you like the play?” And I responded “If you are from Buffalo, you will love it. What Tom Dudzik did for growing up Polish-Catholic in Buffalo, Laura Pedersen has done for growing up Irish-Catholic in Buffalo.” The Dudzik reference was to OVER THE TAVERN, and my comparison may have been a tad hasty. Dudzik’s play was more bitter-sweet, while Pedersen’s play is more in-your-face. Later, I was reminded that Dudzik’s play was set in the 1950s, which, through the haze of history, is remembered in a more nostalgic, gentler way. Pedersen was not going for nostalgia so much as social commentary. But, if you are from Buffalo, you really should get over to 710 Main.
Images: John Quilty
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!