Subtext Theater Company’s new production, A Prayer for the Sandinistas, is a world premiere by Leigh Johnson, one of the two-year-old company’s founders. It’s a slow-moving period piece, the story of a closely knit Polish Catholic community in 1979, when Pope John Paul II came to Chicago. The play is directed by Jonathan “Rocky” Hagloch, also a co-founder of Subtext.
The story focuses on Kassia (Hillary Hensler) and her son Johnny (played by Jack Edwards at 11 and by David M. Hartley at 23 in 1979) . Kassia is a deeply religious Catholic, who works for Catholic Charities and spends all her spare time on church matters. Her husband, Johnny’s father, was killed in a car accident before Johnny was born. Kassia is wracked with guilt over certain family secrets, which come out in the course of the play.
Johnny was born with a large port wine birthmark around his eye, which has affected his whole life. He’s now working for a downtown bank and going to school at UIC. Despite his Catholic education and his mother’s efforts, Johnny has become disillusioned with the church.
Kassia’s sisters, Anna and Eva (Laura Brennan and Julie Schlesinger), are part of a religious order working in Nicaragua, where the Sandinistas have just overthrown the brutal right-wing Somoza government. (After Daniel Ortega’s revolutionary government was in power, the U.S. backed and funded the right-wing Contra opposition group.)
The sisters come to visit to see the pope and bring with them two young Nicaraguans. Maria (Gloria Alvarez) has been writing letters to Johnny since both were children and Johnny sent a small sponsorship gift each month. She and her friend Carlos (Victor Manaña) are both revolutionaries, and sister Eva strongly disapproves. Eva also disapproves of Johnny’s disaffection from the church, of Kassia’s cooking and many other things.
Three characters round out this family story. Stanley (Phil Troyk), Kassia’s brother-in-law and Johnny’s uncle, is a Chicago cop. Father Wozek (Louis Smrtnyk), is the parish priest. Kate Robison plays Mary Paulus, a young woman who works with Kassia.
Even though there are few actual similarities, A Prayer for the Sandinistas has to remind you of John Guare’s award-winning 1971 House of Blue Leaves, produced here a year ago by Raven Theatre. Pope Paul VI’s 1965 visit to New York is the background for the Guare play, which is a similar length, but is much more tightly written. It has a few nuns and lacks the Catholic angst.
Hagloch’s direction doesn’t save this production. Hensler’s performance as Kassia is the only really strong one. Timing and pacing seem off throughout, with a few awkward pauses, which are probably supposed to be dramatic pauses.
Since this is a world premiere, it only makes sense that the script still needs work. So these are my notes for the director. (There are a couple of spoilers ahead.)
The play is too long by at least 30 minutes. There are too many story lines and plot points. I would say eliminate the Sandinista political element entirely but then you’d have to change the title. But you could easily drop the papal plot.
Finally, the ending is saccharine and not credible. Is Johnny’s decision to take his mother to the Pope’s mass based on maternal attachment or rekindled religious faith? The distinction should be clearer. A young man who describes the Catholic church as representing, “Stupidity and superstition” and says “Sorry, Uncle Stosh. I slammed that door and nailed it shut!” is not going to be instantly converted by his uncle’s story.
Leigh Johnson’s other plays are Brother’s Keeper, the first Subtext production in 2015. His other plays, Lefties and Lotto Fever in the Sucker State have been produced by the Saint Sebastian Players. He also is the author of three novels and three screenplays.
A Prayer for the Sandinistas by Subtext Theater continues through June 11 at Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston Ave. Running time is two-and-a-half hours with one intermission. Tickets are $25 for performances Friday-Sunday.