Review: Dark Comedy Wrestles with Father-Daughter Relationship in I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard in Milwaukee
One of Milwaukee’s newer theaters, The Constructivists, ends its fifth season with a crowd-pleasing production of Halley Feiffer’s I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard. In this 2015 play, a dysfunctional family (represented here by a father and adult daughter) is locked in battle. David, the father, is played by one of Milwaukee’s best-known actors. James Pickering was a 39-year resident actor at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater and often showed up on other stages around the city. Many Milwaukee theatergoers know him as the quintessential Ebeneezer Scrooge in the Rep’s annual production of A Christmas Carol.
In Feiffer’s play, Pickering pulls out all the stops and dispels any preconceived notions one may have about him (as an actor). David is an award-winning stage actor and writer, and also a husband and father. He’s foul-mouthed, verbally abusive and homophobic. His vitriolic tirade is only interrupted by the occasional cigarette, swallow of wine, sniff of cocaine or a puff from a glass pipe filled with weed. At times, it seems as though David will go off the rails. But then he steadies himself, and inserts a joke.
Ella, his adult daughter, hangs on every word. As someone who is just starting her acting career, she is hoping for any scrap of advice David might offer.
But David is more interested in bludgeoning everyone around him: actors, directors, critics, publishers, etc. He goes off on famous playwrights, too, such as Arthur Miller. “Attention must be paid,” David says, echoing the lines of Miller’s Death of a Salesman. “Who talks like that?”
The scene takes place late at night, as the two sit around a wooden kitchen table. Ella is waiting for newspaper reviews of her latest play, an adaptation of The Seagull. While not chosen for the main role of Nina, Ella was cast in a lesser part (Masha).
This does not sit well with David, who fumes that the director is a hack and a has-been. Still, when the reviews come out, they are uniformly good—mostly for the actor who plays Nina. Although somewhat crushed by the writer’s lack of attention to her performance, Ella tries to see the bright side. “Well, I’m in the cast of a Broadway play that just got rave reviews,” she says, with mixed enthusiasm.
David immediately defends her. He praises her talent and encourages her to stay focused on her acting. “Do not be safe,” he advises. Another of his words of wisdom: “Be sure to f— them before they f—- you.”
Later, he adds that Ella must take up playwriting, in order to create a work suited to her talents. Ella seems startled. “I’m not a writer,” she says, looking puzzled.
Eventually, David’s wrath is directed at Ella. One suspects that this is part of David’s M.O., one that has cost him influential friends and colleagues over the years. David tamps down his emotions by medicating himself with drugs, alcohol and insults to keep people away.
One cannot decide whether David’s fury towards Ella is fueled by the drugs, or is a byproduct of his self-loathing. Perhaps David is attempting to help her, by pushing her out of the nest. In any case, it works. Ella rushes past him, a suitcase in her hand. “I hate you,” she screams at David. “Who cares?,” he replies, nonchalantly.
A Generational Clash Over the Past
In a second act, it is five years later. This time, it seems as though the table and chairs are now in a green room, located offstage. In any case, Ella has just arrived from her new play. It’s a one-woman show about her own experiences. Ella is overtired and exhausted, yet also buoyed by the audience’s warm reception.
Like her father, Ella attempts to balance her emotions with some wine that she had probably received as a gift. Then, as she talks to her assistant on a cell phone, it’s evident that she has learned her father’s lessons all too well.
Ella’s now-estranged father, who has dressed in a suit coat and tie for her opening night, quietly approaches her. He holds a bouquet of flowers. She looks at him, puzzled. Obviously, she wasn’t expecting to see him. And she’s not sure that she wants to. This time, her father is full of praise for her performance.
Given David’s diminished physical state, one suspects that he is glad to have been able to see his daughter. David beams at her, asking for forgiveness. By the end of the play, it’s clear that several generations of abuse are not about to end easily.
The emotions in this production run high, and Director Jaimelyn Gray (also the company’s founder and artistic director) allows a few moments to get somewhat scary for audience members who are seated just a few feet from the action. Gray herself has often talked about theater as a “dark art” that explores some of our unflattering qualities.
The small but realistic set (by Sarah Harris), subtle lighting (by Ben Yela) and sounds (by Ekene Ikegwuani) heighten the feeling of a real-time encounter, as do the costumes by Vee Delgado.
Pickering, who probably needs very little make-up to create his older character, is amazing to watch. When viewed at eye—to-eye level, his powerful performance is astonishing in its intensity. Every grimace, every laugh, and every step are done with dramatic finesse. For instance, as Pickering occasionally stops in his tracks while moving towards an object, one senses innately that his hesitation may be based on possible memory loss.
Early in the play, Rebekah Farr is mostly relegated to giving reactions. Her occasional comments are often met with her father’s surprise or derision, and she backpedals to keep her father focused on his storytelling.
By the end, when the play’s attention rests squarely on her, Farr convincingly portrays a character who was shaped in her father’s image. Watching these fine actors go through their paces offers a wondrous gift to audiences who seek out I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard.
I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard continues through April 29 at the Interchange Theater Cooperative, 628 N. 10th St., Milwaukee. Running time is 100 minutes, without an intermission. Tickets are $20. Masks are not required, although this could change based on the city’s Covid levels. For more information, see wwwtheconstructivists.org, or call 414-858-6874.