Eclipse Theatre’s 2016 Stephen Adly Guirgis season was already off to a great start, and with Our Lady of 121st Street–the second entry of their playwright-centric season—Eclipse Theatre firmly cement themselves (and Guirgis) as mainstays of contemporary drama.
The drama of Our Lady’s sprawling two acts largely centers around a group of disparate individuals who return from their various walks of life to mourn their beloved teacher, nun and community activist, Sister Rose. The only problem is that her body has gone missing and all that remains is an empty casket. In her absence, many of the play’s characters search inward for closure, while others seek connection and forgiveness from familiar, yet painful relations.
While Our Lady is one of the Pulitzer prize-winning playwright’s earlier works, it shines in the same ways as much of his oeuvre. Guirgis’ use of language is inventive, gritty and honest, with all of his characters speaking truthfully from the heart.
This urban lyricism fits better on some actors than others, but, for the most part, the cast in director Sarah Moeller’s production rises to the occasion. In the role of Inez, Celeste Cooper carefully walks the line between vulnerability and anger. Bernard Gilbert’s turn as Rooftop is a similarly successful mixture of suffering and celebrity. While some characters, such as Rudy Galvan’s portrayal of Pinky, or Gary Simmers’ Father Lux, steer clear of stereotype, other actors veer a little too close to caricature throughout the play’s 2-hour-and-20-minute run.
Of all the aspects of Eclipse Theatre’s regularly solid production, Guirgis’ writing emerges as the strongest element. That isn’t to say that any other element of the production is weak; however, the way certain design choices end up informing aspects of staging, for example, begin to muddy an otherwise clear production.
One major instance of this is Kevin Hagan’s beautiful scenic design, which juxtaposes elements of neighborhood decay, Catholicism and a dive-y bar to create a unit set that allows for fluid transitions to separate locations, while suggesting each location’s importance within the neighborhood and characters’ lives.
What is stunning in theory, however, becomes clunky in its execution. Because of the orientation of the multiple tables and booths lining the stage left and stage right walls, blocking for the scenes in the restaurant becomes awkward and stagnant, especially in three-person scenes where each actor must try their best to be seen. Several rows of chairs indicating The Ortiz Funeral Home become equally restricting. While this design choice could be read as a decision to highlight the characters’ feelings of existential entrapment, it more often comes across as limiting Guirgis’ rhythmic dialogue, as actors have little room to physicalize their emotions.
Eclipse Theatre Company’s production is, overall, an affecting examination of how a community grapples with death, faith and retribution. While the production has some missteps, none of them are large enough to water down Guirgis’ sobering material. Several strong performances and a courageous, unflinching script combine for a moving and memorable evening of theater.
Our Lady of 121st Street runs Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. through August 21 at Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave. Tickets are $30 for all regular performances and $20 for groups of 10 or more, students and seniors. Half-price rush tickets are also available. For tickets, please call the Athenaeum Box Office at 773-935-6875 or order online at www.eclipsetheatre.com.