The final weeks of World War II saw a great change in not only the perception of our country and the world, but the universe itself, with the advent of atomic energy and its unleashing upon the world in a fiery fury toward Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was a destruction of innocence, of sorts, one of the moments that divides eras into "befores" and "afters."
John C. Picardi's new play, The Sweepers, covers exactly this period of time. Though The Sweepers covers primarily the hardships of three Italian-American women living in Boston at that time, the new drama at Urban Stages ends up being about far more.
Each of the women is facing her own troubles: Dotty (Brigitte Viellieu-Davis) must deal with a husband in a mental hospital and her son at war, Mary (Donna Davis) must adjust to living life alone while her husband and son fight on the front lines in the Pacific, and Bella (Dana Smith) fights her battles at home, dealing with her half-Irish son (Matthew Walton) and the upper-crust Italian woman (Ivy Vahanian) he has found to marry.
In terms of sheer story, Picardi delivers little; there's a throughline about Sonny's wife publically displaying her purity with an old Italian custom, and the ever-looming spectre of World War II, but not much else. Picardi generally chooses instead to focus on how his five characters deal with the end of the war, and what that means for their relationships with each other. As the world around them goes through catastrophic changes, so too will they not be the same after the war.
But the events they face are believable because the the relationships between the characters are strong and believable. These all feel like people who've known each other so long, they can't imagine life without the others. They gain real strength from a love and familiarity that exists deeper than their capacity to express.
Picardi had excellent help from director Frances W. Hill, who has helped the five actors wrench such powerful performances from the material which, I suspect, is somewhat lacking on the page. The Sweepers is not a great play - its plot twists are a little too predictable, its characters too explicitly drawn for that - but in the hands of everyone involved in this production, it is a very moving and terribly effective one.
There are plenty of examples: Dotty is the comic relief character, given her moment of serious drama, seeking solace in the Virgin Mary after a family tragedy. Mary is reserved and dedicated to the war effort, never revealing - until the precisely appointed dramatic moment - her own dark secrets. Bella is a driving force, manipulating and annoying the other characters, but letting loose with her own demons in a dramatic conflagration that involves not only every actor, but every member of the audience. Some things you just can't write in a script.
I'd be hard pressed to single out any single element that seems more or less a contribution than the others. The script, the performers, the direction, the sets and lights effectively evoking a north-Boston back alley by Roman J. Tatarowicz, or Kevin Brainerd's roughed-up costumes (Kevin Brainerd) never stick out. They're just all there creating, from very little, a gripping evening of theatre.
Isn't that why we go to the theatre in the first place? That's what makes The Sweepers a show you shouldn't miss. It's the perfect example of how a show can truly be more than the sum of its parts.