Death has the uncanny tendency to bring people together in unusual, uncomfortable ways. In a powerful yet tragic portrayal of human existence, “Our Lady of 121st Street” presents the struggles of 12 men and women, brought together after the strange death of their former teacher, Sister Rose, in the settings surrounding New York City’s 121st Street.
Under the direction of Joshua Brody ’07, the cast and crew of this year’s first Dramat production present a story of struggle and modern tragedy. Although filled with somewhat strange occurrences, the plot and its themes are sure to resonate with audiences.
The drama opens with one man, Victor (Matty Rod ’08), raging at the death of Sister Rose, raging at disrespect shown to the dead, raging that some guy answered his cellphone while kneeling over a casket. Meanwhile, Balthazar (Kendrich Strauch ’05), who is shortly revealed to be a detective, begins questioning Victor about the death, making Victor and the audience uneasy about the awkward situation.
You are immediately submerged in the story of people and situations that at first seem bizarre and uncommon, but actually strike close to the heart of reality and everyday living. It seems unusual to see the detective questioning an upset, grieving man, who is standing beside an empty casket wearing only his shirt and underwear, his pants nowhere to be seen. But before the end of the first act, you realize that the alcoholic detective; and the hypersensitive girl; and the middle-aged black man uncomfortable in public with his flaming gay partner; and the abusive, violent, abused woman; and the broken priest; and the man struggling to support and care for his retarded brother, are just like yourself and the people you know. Granted, they are somewhat extreme examples, but the essence of the situations and people they represent are not: They are, in fact, common. Everyone faces similar hardships and struggles in life. Life isn’t easy. These themes ring loudly throughout this modern tragedy.
Although the play is tragic in the end and in its principal themes, it is also marked by great comedy. Both in the few scenes filled with laugh after laugh and in the subtle and not-so-subtle witticisms and slapstick lines sprinkled carefully throughout the script, the audience has a chance to laugh heartily and see that there is a lighter side to life. The play does speak to the never-ending struggles many people face, but the humor reminds all that there are smiles to be found in the darkest of times.
Although the development of the characters in the first act is somewhat long and somewhat slow, it eventually builds to an extremely moving concluding scene, and from the start of the second act, the development never fails to capture your eyes and mind.
The staging and blocking of the play is simple and clean, focusing the audience on the detailed dialogue that drives the story forward. In fact, some of the most captivating scenes involve almost no movement from the characters at all, such as the scenes taking place in the church confessionals.
Although some of the acting is at times less than convincing, some of the performances are, in turn, more than impressive. Most notably, the performance of Alexander Newman-Wise ’08 in the role of Pinky is simply moving. Playing a retarded man, he draws the audience into the most emotionally evocative scene in the play. As his older brother struggles to take care of him, Pinky struggles to find happiness in little things in life, succeeding at one point to have “the best day of his life,” only to be summarily brought to his original, harsh reality.
The technical work for the show, though easily unnoticed, strongly contributes to the play’s message. The set for the show, although stationary, is well designed, clearly defining the three settings of the play: the confessional, the bar and the funeral home. The lighting design effectively highlights the various moods of the drama — often dim and dark — and still carefully illuminates the characters’ expressions. Several scene changes are made more effective by slow dimming of the lights, allowing the preceding scene to linger in the audience’s minds. The music follows the highs and lows of the drama, deepening the emotional response from viewers.
Although all the characters in this modern tragedy face enduring struggles as their personal stories come full circle, their lives show us that there is at times hope — even if it is just hope that amid trouble and pain, there are others there with us.