Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Elusive Innocence Premieres at New Jersey Rep
In three scenes, Sessa and his cast of three actresses follow the evolution of an Italian-American family over the period of a half century. The first scene takes place on a June morning in 1944 in the Brooklyn grocery-vegetable store of an Italian immigrant. His three daughters (young adult and adolescent in age) are awaiting the arrival of a shipmate of their only other sibling, Johnny, who is missing in action in the European theater. The eldest, Francie (Catherine Eaton), is also worried about the fate of her soldier-boyfriend Freddie whom she had met while flaunting her parents' old world rules of propriety by attending dances at a ballroom. Yet middle sister Catherine (Corey Tazmania) seems the most assimilated of the three when she questions her family's values, including that of the existence of a deity. Marion (Deborah Baum), the youngest, has a weak heart as a result of having suffered rheumatic fever, and ponders her obligation to tell potential suitors of her condition. All are ashamed of having any pleasures while Johnny's fate is in doubt. We will not know his fate, nor that of Freddie until scene two, thirty one years later.
Scenes two and three occur, respectively, in 1975 and 1995 in the Long Island home of Francie, who has aged the appropriate number of years. Sessa's script and Eaton's performance clearly convey this without Eaton changing either clothes or makeup. However, in scene two, Tazmania and Baum portray the daughters of their scene one characters; and in scene three, they play their respective granddaughters.
The play centers on Francie and how deeply the events of one June day in 1944 impacted her psyche. The subsequent generations of young women, each of who reflect traits of their mothers, generally move in a direction away from faith, stability and the cosseting world of their ancestors.
This could and should be engrossing stuff. Sadly, at this point in time, the women fail to engage our interest. The schematic approach of the structure of the play and the broad strokes in the delineation of the characters (less so with Francie than the others) rob them of dimension and humanity. Thus, we are left with stereotypic one dimensional vessels for the author's ideas.
Moral and social questions abound in the thoughts expressed by Sessa's women. Many relate to religion and prejudice, but they are raised arbitrarily and do not feel generic to the play. A discussion of the weighty issue of the Holocaust and whether it is correct for Jews to foster the idea that their losses during World War II should be regarded in a special light is thrown in from left field, and then left in a muddle. When Francie sensibly states that it is an insult to compare one group's suffering to that of another, I did not know on which side of the argument this placed her.
It would be unfair not to mention that during the last moments of the play, I found that thoughts adapted from the writings of Stephen Hawking and applied by Sessa to events of the play were deeply moving.
Catherine Eaton manages the difficult task of clearly and believably conveying the three ages of Francie. Within the confines of the dialogue provided for each of their broadly drawn trio of young women, Corey Tazmania and Deborah Baum effectively limn their personalities and predilections.
Dana Benningfield has directed smoothly, getting maximum mileage from the play. Especially clever is the unit set by Carrie Mossman. Moving from left to right, the side wall and its environs depict the store setting of the first scene, the central area depicts the second scene dining room, and, at the right, the third scene bedroom setting is depicted semi-abstractly with portions of bedroom furniture items jutting from the side wall.
The meaning of the intriguing title A Child's Guide to Innocence is elusive. In an interview, director Bennington states that it refers to the importance of knowing one's past as "knowing is the only innocence." This is a poetic notion, but its meaning, even with the director's explanation, like the meaning of the entire play, remains elusive.
There is much that is promising in A Child's Guide to Innocence. With this current production, the estimable NJ Rep continues to serve the theatre community with the premiere of ambitious new work. However, the view from here is that the rewriting that remains necessary in order to fulfill the promise in Sessa's Innocence is not inconsiderable.
A Child's Guide to Innocence continues performances through August 14, 2005 (Thurs.-Sat. 8 PM; Sat. 4 PM; Sun. 2 PM) at the New Jersey Repertory's Lumia Theatre, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ 07740: Box Office: 732-229-3166; online www.njrep.org.
A Child's Guide to Innocence by Vincent Sessa; directed by Dana Benningfield