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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Southern Gothic Re-Emerges with
Angels and Ministers of Grace

New Jersey Repertory Company

Also see Bob's review of The Understudy


Dana Benningfield, Maureen Silliman and
David Van Pelt

The feisty and productive New Jersey Repertory has presented 69 world premieres (out of its over 100 productions) over the past 15 years. It is at it again with Angels and Ministers of Grace by Elaine Smith. Alas, although the superlative staging which the play is receiving is, in and of it itself, worthy of our time and attention, the play is an inorganic, clumsily constructed patchwork Southern gothic. The odd and dysfunctional family at its center is neither sufficiently real nor amusing to engage our interest or emotions.

The setting is a cluttered rundown farmhouse in rural northeast Florida which is home to an eccentric, dysfunctional brood of two middle-aged sisters Miriam and Arletta—and, it would seem, their younger brother Jimmy Ray who hangs around a lot, but he actually lives in a second, tiny house on the same property. Their mother passed on six months ago which may have increased the siblings' loose grip on their moorings. Miriam's ex-husband Franklin Robie, who has re-married and has a new family, comes around trying to be helpful.

Although she complains a lot, Miriam is deeply devoted to the care and feeding of her odd siblings who are incapable of caring for themselves. Her indolent and mentally limited brother idles away his time at a bar, and mooches off and steals money from her. Arletta spends her days crafting lovely, imaginative and unique figures of angels from discarded objects of all sorts from the house and farm. Arletta is psychic. She has powerful seizures during which she sees dangers lurking in the futures of herself or those close to her. Miriam has been suffering with a sharp recurrent pain in her gut. Arletta, who has "stolen" Miriam's address book wants Jimmy to take it into town for safekeeping with a friend. She tells Jimmy that "There's death in that phone book. I seen it."

There was a death in this farmhouse seven years earlier, which is the pivotal event of Elaine Smith's play. The resolution of this trauma to the family in the final moments of the play is moving, and explores the devastation that a sense of guilt can cause. However, Smith treats everything about that event—i.e., the identity of the deceased and the circumstances surrounding her death—as a mystery, slowly parceling out information about it arbitrarily in occasional bits and pieces. Because Smith holds the most relevant information in reserve for that final scene, we are unaware of any strong underlying theme which would give relevance to at least some of the gothic archetypes on stage until the play's closing minutes. The guilt in question, while understandable, is irrational as the circumstances leading to the death in question were random, unexpected and unrelated to anyone's behavior. Yet, as far as one can tell from the text, this has not been considered or discussed for seven years. Apparently, such a discussion was held in abeyance to provide a quick, uplifting conclusion to Angels and Ministers of Grace. Thus, as Miriam is fond of saying, "ishkabibble".

Dana Benningfield nicely balances the frustration and anger engendered in Miriam by her siblings and circumstances with the love, warmth and sense of duty which she feels toward them. David Van Pelt is totally convincing as the infuriatingly disturbed Jimmy Ray, doing nothing to sentimentalize him. James Earley is solid as Miriam's ex, Franklin.

The ever delightful Maureen Silliman surpasses herself in the role of Arletta. Smith gives us nothing about her history, providing no clues as to how or why Arletta has come to her powers and proclivities. Yet there is a fluidity and inner spark in Silliman's portrayal of her which arises completely from her own actor's soul. I doubt that even Aimee Semple McPherson's evangelical seizures were as convincing as those performed here by Silliman.

Director Marc Geller has given us a sure-footed, lively, fast-paced performance. The formidable Jessica Parker has not only provided a richly detailed, lived in, rundown farm home, but, most impressively, she has provided an artistically arresting and varied collection of handmade "angels" imaginatively crafted from an astonishing variety of household objects and detritus including lighting fixture parts and paper towel rolls. I counted about three dozen such pieces, a collection worthy of a gallery exhibition.

"Angels and ministers of grace defend us!" intones Hamlet when he first sets eye upon the fearsome ghost of his father. This quotation is both the basis for the title of this play and an appropriate response to Elaine Smith's tired, mechanically constructed Southern gothic.

Angels and Ministers of Grace continues performances (Eves: Thursday, Friday, Saturday 8 pm; Sunday 7 pm/ Mats: Saturday 3 pm; Select Sundays 2 pm) through November 23, 2014, at the New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, New Jersey 07740; box office: 732-229-3166; online: www.njrep.org.

Angels and Ministers of Grace by Elaine Smith; directed by Marc Geller

Cast
Miriam……………………Dana Benningfield
Franklin Robie………………..James Earley
Arletta……………………..Maureen Silliman
Jimmy Ray……………………David Van Pelt


Photo: SuzAnne Barabas


- Bob Rendell



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