Show: “A Prayer for the Sandinistas”
Company: Subtext Theater Company
Venue: Prop Thtr (3502 N Elston Ave)
Die Roll: 2
I am unsure where to begin. “A Prayer for the Sandinistas,” as an exploration of faith and family loyalty, is generally fine, if too gentle in its challenges to the status quo. The production is well-acted, and seems suited to the Prop black box space. But there are some dramatic choices that gnaw at my mind when thinking about the performance I saw this week, so I find myself unsure how best to give readers a fair impression of the production.
Let’s start light and easy with a taste of the story. Johnny (played as a child by Jack Edwards, and as an adult by David M. Hartley) lives in 1979 Chicago, a place the Pope is about to visit. His devout mother Kassia (warmly brought to life by Hilary Hensler) has spent months preparing the local parish for the event, and during this time, she opens her home to her arriving sisters, nuns Eva (Julie Schlesinger) and Anna (Laura Brennan). The women have been serving at an orphanage in Nicuragua, where Johnny sent money and letters to the orphaned Maria (Gloria Alvarez) as a child. Maria has come with the sisters, bringing along her boyfriend Carlos (Victor Maraña), a Sandinista with whom Johnny, his cop uncle Stanley (Phil Troyk), and everyone else clashes.
The play involves debates between atheists and Catholics, questions of social justice and family responsibility. But there are two elements of the script that deserve addressing outside of those thematic concerns. First, Johnny was born with a sizeable port wine stain birthmark on his face; playwright Leigh Johnson makes it a focus of the story, serving as a reminder of guilt to Johnny’s mother, and acting as an obstacle for Johnny’s advancement at work. Johnson expends a lot of energy and dialogue in regards to what is essentially a make-up choice. Though he is willing to attach the birthmark to Kassia’s complicated psychology, he offers little follow-through in regards to how Johnny’s feelings about it change, marking the “othered” party as less important than his more typically beautiful mother. This would be of little note, if not for the play’s presentation of Anna, the second concerning element of the play for me.
Anna has some sort of developmental disability. She is viewed simply as “slow” or a handful by those around her. She is childlike and innocent, and Brennan works overtime to display a curiosity and understanding in Anna’s eyes that the script does not support. Johnson never gives his nun the definition necessary to draw a conclusion about her condition. Because his work is set in 1979, the attitudes of characters in his world would not reflect how we address identity labels now, possibly. But Anna is constantly referred to as the “heart of the family,” and it is her lack of understanding and individuality that makes her an asset and a burden to everyone onstage. So she becomes a caricature and stereotype played by a neurotypical actress, who does her best not to look down on the character.
By play’s end, I wondered why exactly Johnson has included Anna and Johnny with his birthmark. The same story about faith could have functioned without unsurprising pronouncements that trumpet acceptance but do not give characters their full voices or humanity. Add to that an outdated discussion about how the Catholic church influences and traumatizes its parishioners, and the script becomes so old-fashioned, it is difficult to connect its 1970’s concerns to the contemporary world.
Director Jonathan “Rocky” Hagloch allows for some quiet character work, but he also gives so much breadth to awkward pauses that the play shuts down throughout much of the first act. The design work by Subtext Theater Company members is minimal and adequate, while Hartley and Hensler build a warm relationship over the run time. This production might best be viewed as a museum piece, a portrait of a different time, in which principles about faith can be resolved within a week.
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Troubling portraits of two “othered” characters muddy a domestic drama.
DIE RATING: d4 – “Not Worth the Time”