EmptyDeaf West Theatre, North Hollywood
Through Sept 23
The world premiere of Elizabeth Appell's play reveals a gift for natural dialogue, rough-edged humor and gentle affection.
Based on Appell's own short story, "Confessions of a Catholic Child" is about a maverick septuagenarian named Regina (Sandra Lafferty) who, with the help of daughter Kate (Heidi Mages) and a cast of now-departed characters from her past, examines her life in an effort to find meaning in her impending death from cancer.
The cast, given Appel's wonderful material, goes from strength to strength, though the writing for the women seems marginally more powerful and expressive than for the men. As the departing matriarch, Lafferty has a ball, entertaining herself and the audience, letting go and holding back in a virtuoso display of acting that barely comes across like acting at all. Lafferty manages the arch of her progress from angry and bitter to loving and accepting with an inspiring crescendo of pride and courage.
Mages also is brilliant in handling both her roles: that of Kate, who must believably transform from cold and remote to warm and loving, and of Regina's mother, who must project (through a scrim) a strong, unsympathetic alcoholic.
As the "spirit" of Regina as a young beauty queen, Kimberly Atkinson has tremendous range and expressiveness, though the play leaves her standing around a bit too much. Megan McNulty, playing 8-year-old Regina as well as teenage Regina, shows off wonderful energy and surprising versatility.
The men are good too, though the pace at which Paul Stroili is asked to play the Pope, and Regina's husband, makes it difficult for him to fully expand into the role. Even so, he impresses deeply. Also playing behind a scrim, Michael Vincent Carrera as Regina's father establishes character almost entirely with his voice and does so impressively. Ian Vogt plays his two roles with the kind of presence and strength that contributes significantly to the play's success.
Director Lauren McCormack handles the talented cast extremely well, with the result that the interactions have an authentic feel and absorbing physical tangibility. And while the turning point in the play is a set piece in Act II that six actors play as if it were an operatic sextet, all of the smaller configurations work just as convincingly. However, though the play feels like it is leading up to a confrontation between Kate and the Spirit, it never happens; instead, the conclusion comes so quickly that, despite the accompanying emotional radiance, it is a letdown instead of a catharsis.
The impact of "Confessions" is lessened by the fact that the role played by Catholicism is more generically than personally fleshed out; as a result, Regina's spirituality has a "safe" quality that mutes the specific agony of her conscience.
The production (which is not hearing-impaired) uses the spacious Deaf West Theatre to good effect, avoiding the kind of cluttering with furniture and knickknacks that can so easily become distracting. The music is well chosen and used with minimalist care and subtlety. Although the costumes help build character, they seem more threadbare than they need to be, particularly the Spirit's beauty contest gown.
CONFESSIONS OF A CATHOLIC CHILD
Presented by Virtual Theatre Project
Playwright: Elizabeth Appell
Director: Lauren McCormack
Producers: Kim Terrell and Shawn Emery Ross
Set designer: John De Leonardis
Lighting designer: Scott LeGrand
Sound designer: Warren Davis
Costume designer: J.J. Pyle
Regina: Sandra Lafferty
Spirit: Kimberly Atkinson
Kate and Mother: Heidi Mages
Pope and William: Paul Stroili
Young Woman and Child: Megan McNulty
Daddy: Michael Vincent Carrera
Man: Ian Vogt