An Undivided Heart

Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater

Walking into the Atwater Village Theatre for the world premiere of Yusuf Toropov’s An Undivided Heart, one is engulfed in Amanda Knehans eloquent hell-red set of leaning timbers and sparse furnishings. It is a perfect backdrop for this play about a broken town, broken dreams, and broken faith. It also prepares us for the opening visual of a Little Girl (Ann’ Jewel Lee) declaiming poetry while holding a dead rabbit and wielding a knife. And, because the play concerns the Catholic clergy, she offers a hint of stigmata.

After this nightmare vision, it’s a relief to move into a realistic scene of everyday frustration between Lynne (Alana Dietze), a very angry and very pregnant clerk who goes into labor and must seek assistance from Max (Tim Wright), the man she’s currently berating.

Max turns out to be an editor who has been working on a book about Catholic pedophile priests with his brother, Father Mike (Matthew Gallenstein). As this is the early 1990’s, it is unsurprising that both Father Mike’s parish superior, Antonelli (Paul Eiding), and the Cardinal (John Getz) are anxious to keep the book from publication.

The town’s water has become toxic after decades of industrial waste leakage into the system, and many locals are suffering from leukemia and other diseases. Lynne’s experiences have driven her away from the church which puts her in constant conflict with her mother, Ruth (Alison Martin), who believes without question. Max is seeking peace and his own spiritual comfort by studying Zen with Janice (Tracey A. Leigh). And the popular young priest, Father White (Jesse Bush), turns out to be the kind of sexual predator Father Mike is writing about.

If this sounds ambitious for a two-hour play with an intermission, it is. And An Undivided Heart, despite some sharply-written scenes and the playwright’s inarguable passion, feels so schematic and overstuffed that it only sporadically finds an effective dramatic focus.

But this production, a joint venture from Circle X and the Echo Theater Company, is strongly cast and smartly directed by Chris Fields. Fields does an excellent job of joining the disparate strands into a cohesive whole. He also urges the performers to explore the characters' silences as thoroughly as their dialog.

Dietze is always a performer to watch, and her unsentimental portrayal of Lynne anchors all her scenes. As Max, Wright’s warmth and compassion is a striking contrast to the general tone of the play and goes a long way to making us believe in his rather unlikely romantic pairing with Lynne. Leigh and Martin make all their scenes count as they bring a believable humanity to roles that could easily feel like competing religious symbols. Gallenstein is earnest and sympathetic but is ultimately defeated by a role that makes a pretzel out of Father Mike’s intentions in order to suit the plot. Getz is appropriately regal and autocratic, while Eiding offers genuine concern. Michael Sturgis is hilarious as Father Keenan, an uninhibited assistant to the Cardinal. His appearances offer only comic relief, but it’s welcome.

Some of the roles are double-cast, so you may see different actors than those reviewed above.

Atwater Village Theatre    March 17 – April 22, 2018