When half your audience is in tears at the end of the play, and the other half sits in stunned silence, you know you’ve got a good production on your hands. That production would be Urban Samurai Productions’ regional premiere of Jeff Carter’s award-winning script Homeland Prayer.
It’s easy to see why Homeland Prayer might elicit such tears and quiet thoughtfulness. The play tells the story of a family in rural Middle America fractured by war. Danny’s body has been blown apart by a roadside bomb on a Middle Eastern battlefield. What’s left of him is stabilized and shipped back home, and the family quickly discovers there are worse things than losing a loved one to a quick death.
Danny’s father Darden (Mark Kreger) was a soldier himself during the Vietnam War. Having seen the horrors of war firsthand, Darden is less inclined to believe their current story will have a happy ending. Danny’s wife Kim (Marcia Svaleson) is overwhelmed, particularly since Danny signed up to serve without consulting her, and now doesn’t even seem to recognize her. Danny’s sister Julie (Bethany Ford) and her husband Brent (Ryan Grimes) have escalating troubles of their own, but they are constantly overshadowed by the reality of Danny’s predicament. Danny’s mother Lynn (Tina Sigel) presides over the whole family with a faith so unshakeable at times it’s frightening. It becomes increasingly hard for anyone to measure up to her relentless optimism in the face of ever grimmer facts.
Though Danny is spoken of constantly, the audience never gets to see Danny in person. He is represented in blurred family photos, blown up to enormous size in paintings which hang over half of the stage space, a key part of Erica Zaffarano’s set. Just like the script, these mutant snapshots give us an idea of Danny, a young smiling man, or a baby in his mother’s arms, but nothing specific. Different pictures are spotlighted by Joshua Iley’s lighting design in conjunction with different scenes, offering visual accents and reminders around the edges of the family action.
The focus of Homeland Prayer isn’t on Danny, but on the ripple effects his wartime injuries have on his loved ones. Director Matthew Greseth and the acting ensemble make the most of the complexities in Carter’s script. The relationships between all the characters have depth and history, and more than a few rough edges which inflict pain, intentionally or accidentally.
Kreger and Sigel are great as a long-married couple, struggling with the enormity of their son’s troubles. Darden and Lynn were once enthusiastic members of the hippie generation. Darden was a musician and Lynn followed him on tour, keeping the groupies at bay. After the war, and becoming parents, Darden stopped drinking and Lynn got heavily involved in religion, raising the children to be churchgoers as well. But who they are now is still never far from who they were back then. The beauty of the script, and the performances, is that all this information doesn’t come rushing out at once. Bits and pieces of their individual and shared histories come to light in their conversations with each other and their children and children’s spouses. Darden has just as much discomfort with praying as Lynn has with reminders of their checkered past. They know when to push each other’s limits and when to back off. It’s a contentious but loving relationship, full of the usual small victories and disappointments.
Another complex relationship is that between Darden and his daughter-in-law Kim. Kim can’t get much sympathy from her mother-in-law Lynn, even under these dire circumstances, but Darden always has time for her. Here again, the script and performances don’t take the easy way out. Things don’t devolve into soap opera cliches. Darden and Kim never cross the line. The line becomes fuzzy, and they push it to the breaking point with their emotional intimacy, but they never cross it. The fact that they could, so easily, that they find something in one another that they can’t get with the others in the family, is what makes their scenes together so interesting, and uncomfortable. Kreger gets another great acting partner in Svaleson as Kim. Their last scene together is breathtaking.
After seeing her play a handful of artistic neurotic types, it’s fun to watch Bethany Ford go to the opposite extreme and sink her teeth in the role of a salt-of-the-earth, mother-of-two as Julie. Julie is very much her mother’s daughter, though she herself is a mother of a very different generation. Ford’s easygoing chemistry with Ryan Grimes as Brent makes them an amusing odd couple. She teases him about his weight, he frets about his role as the breadwinner when his career fortunes begin to seesaw. Between her finding comfort in religion, and him finding solace in medicine and science, they can be almost annoying in their upbeat attitudes regarding Danny. They mean well, they just don’t know when to quit.
When the first sound you hear in the play isn’t dialogue, but the call of a crow (well-rendered in Ryan Grimes’ work as sound designer), you know someone’s headed for trouble. When you find out Darden has bonded with those crows, you really know there’s going to be trouble. When you find out Brent is a banker, in 2008, you know there’s going to be trouble. And when characters repeatedly say, “Everything will be fine” or “This is a test, we just need to have faith,” you know everyone’s in for some rough sledding. This isn’t a fault of the script, but a useful way of building the audience’s sense of dread. Even if the characters can’t see it coming, we can. It helps bond us to them, and hope their landing will be a soft one.
The one failing of the script is its lack of nuance in regard to religion. People seem to either have unquestioning faith, or no faith at all. There is no middle ground here between believer and atheist, and it strains credulity. Carter’s script is so skillful at playing in the gray areas of other parts of human relationships that this one slip seems more glaring by contrast. While I was grateful that people of faith weren’t portrayed as ignorant rubes, I missed having a little more subtlety here.
Another place I missed greater fluidity was in the shifts between scenes. There’s a great deal of space on the Sabes JCC stage. While there are a number of different locations in the text, many of them are, or could be, rendered simply with a bed, a small table, a couple of chairs. Darden and Lynn’s kitchen is always on stage, but otherwise there’s a lot of time spent shuffling furniture and props around that probably isn’t entirely necessary. Diners, motels, and waiting rooms recur as the family treks back and forth to Danny’s military hospital. Any or all of them might warrant a permanent home on stage as well, and some might even serve as ominous reminders. While having a dark void surrounding the family kitchen, and allowing those enormous family photos to float in space, is a nice effect, I would have happily traded it as an audience member for swifter transitions. The way the script appears to be written, there doesn’t seem to be any law barring a character from walking out of the end of one scene and joining another character in the next. As with all family tragedies, a little forward momentum never hurts.
But those two quibbles only stand out because the rest of the production is so skillfully presented. The script is powerful, both funny and sad, full of complex characters and relationships, and many different layers of meaning. The direction, design and acting are first-rate. Nothing is held back. It’s a large part of the reason everyone in the theater, onstage and off, is wrung out by the end of the evening.
With more soldiers being wounded than dying on the battlefield, the story of Homeland Prayer is already playing out in real life across the country. This production is a sobering reminder that the bill for the wars we’ve started is coming due—and it’s a big one. Homeland Prayer is compelling, important theater—the sort of play that rewards you for having seen it. I’m glad I did.
4 1/2 stars: Very Highly Recommended.
Urban Samurai’s production of “Homeland Prayer” runs through October 11, 2009. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 2pm, with a special pay what you can performance on Monday October 5th at 7:30pm. Tickets are $16 at the door, $14 online. Students and Seniors are $12 at the door and $10 online. Performances take place at the Sabes Jewish Community Center, 4330 Cedar Lake Road South in St. Louis Park (www.sabesjcc.org). To order online and for more information, visit www.urbansamuraipro.com.
Matthew A. Everett (email@example.com) is a local playwright and three-time recipient of grant support from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Information on Matthew and his plays can be found at matthewaeverett.com.
|Support people-powered non-profit journalism! Volunteer, contribute news, or become a member to keep the Daily Planet in orbit.|