This crowning moment in this new show at New World Stages would be more affecting if the 60 minutes preceding it were less taxing. But as conceived and directed by David Rothenberg, and written and recited by a quartet of people who’ve recently found freedom after lengthy incarcerations, this creaky confessional feels more like a live infomercial than living drama.
The cause they’re hawking is The Fortune Society, which according to the program is “the starting point for nearly 4,000 men and women being released from prison each year.” The organization runs The Castle, an antiquated but striking edifice at 140th Street and Riverside Drive that since 2002 has helped former inmates find jobs, find purposes, and find themselves in the outside world they may have long since forgotten.
But The Castle isn’t about The Castle - it’s about Vilma Ortiz Donovan, Kenneth Harrigan, Angel Ramos, and Casimiro Torres. They sit behind music stands and read from scripts, describing the drug-related abuses that drove them to prison, how they eventually got out, and what they’re now doing to turn their lives around.
Everyone experienced a great deal of pain; failed relationships, with lovers, friends, and family, are commonplace. Torres’s evolution from abused child into Hell’s Kitchen drug kingpin is not far removed from Donovan’s descent into an illegally medicated social whirl; the dissolution of Harrigan’s otherwise well-adjusted childhood differs from Ramos’s in mostly superficial ways. The details may vary, but they all trod eerily similar paths down the road to darkness and later toward the light.
They also share a lot of perfunctorily profound proclamations (“By the time I was old enough to choose,” says Torres of his street upbringing, “I no longer had a choice”), stuffy self-psychoanalyzing (“I guess I was looking for love because I didn’t love myself,” Donovan admits), and mild attempts at memorable wordplay (Harrigan on his debilitating habit: “I went from drug use to drug abuse”). And all lack the deeper insights into life behind bars and the criminal justice system’s successes and failures that would seem to be this play’s ideal guiding theme.
Donovan, Harrigan, Ramos, and Torres aren’t to blame. They’ve been trained as neither playwrights nor actors, and need more guidance in constructing narrative, polishing characters, and even just comporting themselves onstage than Rothenberg has given them. (Torres, for example, displays the most comfortable stage presence, but so mumbles nearly every line he’s the hardest to follow.) Even so, they do admirably, eliciting sympathy with their hesitant voices and tentative manners, and occasionally approaching the brink of tears or terror when stumbling on an unexpectedly tender recollection.
Such moments, however, are fleeting. The performers spend most of their time struggling to make theatrical sense of things, and looking like they can’t wait for the show to end and their newly found lives to resume. A major message here is that thoughtful rehabilitation following imprisonment can transform parolees into productive members of society. Uplifting a statement as that might be, The Castle proves that people of the theatre aren’t created as easily as taxpayers.