World premiere of “An Undivided Heart” about church abuse and tainted water
Matthew Gallenstein and Tracey A. Leigh / Darrett Sanders

LOS ANGELES—Twenty-five years or so ago two major moral crises unfolded at about the same time in Massachusetts. One had to do with the widespread cover-up of child abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, the other with toxic drinking water caused by unregulated corporations (W.R. Grace Co., Beatrice Foods, and the Unifirst Co. were implicated). The first issue was handily dealt with in the 2015 film Spotlight, which won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. The water crime was the subject of the book and 1998 film starring John Travolta, A Civil Action.

In a world premiere collaboration production of Yusuf Toropov’s An Undivided Heart by the Echo Theater Company & Circle X Theatre Co., the author conflates these two crises and asks how far will powerful men and institutions go to keep their secrets—and who pays the price when they do?

Yusuf Toropov surely knows Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play An Enemy of the People, which deals with moral issues over contamination of the town’s public baths. One more thing that Ibsen’s and Toropov’s plays have in common is the issue of whistle-blowing in the media—a newspaper in Norway, a book in Boston.

The play also shares some common ground with the 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning Doubt, A Parable by John Patrick Shanley, which similarly, in a Catholic school setting, took on the question of how much and what kind of proof do we require to act on our suspicions.

What distinguishes Toropov’s play is the focus on the different hierarchical levels, generations and standards of ethical commitment within the Church, as well as on the townspeople whose entire lives have been spent in the arms of the Roman Catholic religion—and within homes supplied by toxic, unholy water. Interestingly, Toropov, an American writer, is himself a convert to Islam who lives in Ireland, where a bright light on the misdeeds of the Catholic Church also has been shining for the past several years.

What’s of further interest in Toropov’s approach is that he incorporates a Buddhist teacher and philosophy into the action, exploring differences between Catholicism and Zen. And he introduces still greater complexity with the character of a Little Girl (Ann’Jewel Lee) who appears in a succession of mystical, revelatory dreams that serve as clues.

At stake are traditional principles of absolute obedience to authority, which can be problematic in any religion, and the impulse toward truth-telling in a deceitful world. As Toropov expresses it, “The larger question is, what’s the right thing to do in this moment?” The author more or less stacks the deck in favor of the Buddhist non-dualistic way of thinking over the strict and judgmental Catholic way. (“In my school,” says the Zen adept Max, “we are allowed to call the Master on his bullshit.”)

In any case, what is clear is that every religious or social system has its own self-contained lines of inquiry into life’s big issues. Sometimes they contradict or bypass one another, and at other times they overlap and intersect. Even when the world tries to come up with global standards, such as those expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, compromises for the sake of inclusion are inevitable; and implementation is always subject to widely diverse interpretation.

Chris Fields very capably directs a cast of ten players—actually more than ten because some roles are double-cast. The entire ensemble includes Jeff Alan-Lee, Jesse Bush, Bob Clendenin, Alana Dietze, Ann’Jewel Lee, Paul Eiding, Matthew Gallenstein, John Getz, Kaleb King, Tracey A. Leigh, Alison Martin, Sigute Miller, Jennifer A. Skinner, Michael Sturgis and Tim Wright. I will name the performers seen on March 18th.

The set design by Amanda Knehans is simple but effective. A few basic items of furniture are moved around the stage to create different environments, while the overall picture is defined by ceiling-high lengths of timber placed at odd angles that might represent soaring church architecture, homes or trees. There is some clever stagecraft signaled right from the beginning by a smoking typewriter—on which young Father Mike (Matthew Gallenstein) has written his tell-all book about the crimes in his own Church—and strange, heavenly lighting for the prophetic dream apparitions. The play runs just over two hours, with one intermission.

Toropov delineates strong characters with powerful back stories. Among the clergy there are the alarm-sounding protagonist Father Mike in a crisis of faith, the molester priest Mark White (Jesse Bush), Mike’s mentor Father Frank Antonelli (Paul Eiding), the smug, collaborationist Cardinal (John Getz), his campy assistant Father Keenan (Michael Sturgis), and the Buddhist teacher Janice (Tracey A. Leigh)—thanks, Mr. Toropov, for making this a female role! The Little Girl also serves a spiritual purpose with her semi-coherent rambling that yet is portentous: “Be not afraid…a secret will be revealed but at great cost.”

Among the townspeople are Lynne Callahan (Alana Dietze), pregnant, sickly with the water and angrily skeptical of men; her mother Ruth (Alison Martin), hopelessly enmeshed in a traditional world of men’s expectations for women; and Max (Tim Wright), Mike’s brother and book editor, a Zen practitioner.

The dialogue is crisp and telling, laden with layers of past experiences—although at the upper reaches of the Church hierarchy there is little character development as such. The author connects his differently suffering characters in all the expected, and in many unexpected ways. Even some of their dreams are shared. He shows the value in interfaith conversation. Several of his characters will eventually (beyond the scope of this play) fall in public disgrace, but a few others will be lifted, having weathered the crises and become more empathic and human.

Now, I’m not a play doctor, but sometimes I get to play one in the pages of People’s World. The actors’ execution of Toropov’s engaging script is nearly flawless, and that alone is a strong draw to see this play. But the premise of the script itself promises more than it fulfills. Not that every piece of theatre needs to come wrapped in a pretty bow to be considered complete, but the audience for this piece is entitled to more. In a world premiere production for a play that may—and should—have legs, now is the time to work out the kinks.

For example, the issue of the town’s chemically tainted water supply, from which residents are dying left and right, is dropped about midway through and never addressed. If it’s true that Father Mark White’s wealthy mother pushed him into the priesthood, as is alleged, we don’t ever learn more about that dynamic. We’re told that because she is a major donor to the Church no one in the ecclesiastical leadership cares to investigate her errant son—but where does her wealth come from? It is possible that family might also be responsible in some critical way for the water crisis?

Tim Wright, Alison Martin, Alana Dietze / Darrett Sanders

A few other points: We are totally unprepared for Janice also suddenly coming down with a potentially life-threatening cancer—and did that also come from the water? The Cardinal is supposedly a country western music fan, but we only hear about that from Father Keenan, not in any way from the cardinal himself (although he does “Stand By [His] Man”). Father Mike claims to have been abused as a child, and he says by whom, but there’s no confrontation that spools out from this revelation. A certain tape recording is never referred to again, whose future utility is never hinted at—well, this one I guess could be left to the audience’s imagination, and that goes for the photos, too. There are too many assertions made and not shown, set-ups created and not followed through, and loose ends abandoned, the principal one being the water crisis.

An Undivided Heart runs through April 22, with performances Fri., Sat. and Mon. at 8 pm, and Sun. at 4 pm at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles 90039. Free parking is available in the Atwater Xing lot half a block south of the theater. For reservations and information, call (310) 307-3753 or go the the theater website here.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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