Brandon Wolcott and Joseph Melendezin Paradise
(Photo © Kyle Ancowitz)
Brandon Wolcott and Joseph Melendez
in Paradise
(Photo © Kyle Ancowitz)
Are some things unforgivable? David Foley's enthralling new play Paradise centers around Robbie (Brandon Wolcott), a bruised soul searching for "a way to go on" after the suicide of his sister. He feels burdened by guilt and incapable of love; as another character puts it, he wants to wallow in his own "unforgivability." As the play follows Robbie's struggle with depression and emptiness, it explores issues of faith, trauma, love, and the (im)possibility of redemption.

After an encounter with a pair of evangelical Christians (John Koprowski and Michael Bell), Robbie decides that he should get back in touch with his Catholic roots. His best friend, Betty (Tracey Gilbert), sets him up on a date with another of her gay male friends, Carlos (Joseph Melendez), who happens to be a practicing Catholic. Carlos, in turn, introduces Robbie to Father Tim (Tom Ligon), who turns out to be just as spiritually lost as Robbie. "We invent God so he'll forgive our sins," says Father Tim. "And when our sins prove too large for God, we turn our face from him."

Although the Robbie-Carlos relationship is at the center of the play, Foley further explores his themes through two other couples: Betty and her husband Stu (Robert Buckwalter), who are expecting their first child, and Portia (Jonna McElrath) and Phil (Bruce Barton), a long-married couple whose relationship is defined more by comfort and familiarity than actual passion. A dinner party that brings all of the major characters together allows the playwright to demonstrate how difficult it is to describe the way one person can love another, as well as the fear and anxiety that verbal affirmation of that love can create.

Wolcott delivers a captivating performance that is subtle, nuanced, and internalized within his body. It's almost painful to watch Robbie's attempts to communicate with those around him, as he withholds much more than he ever articulates. When he finally lets loose towards the end of the play, it's both heartbreaking and terrifying.

Melendez is also quite good, especially when Carlos confronts Portia and Phil about a long-standing joke between them that he feels trivializes his life and his desires. Ligon finds both the humor and tragedy within Father Tim, and his final encounter with Robbie is very moving. Gilbert and Buckwalter achieve a fine balance, demonstrating the dysfunction at the heart of Betty and Stu's relationship as well as the genuine connection that keeps them together. McElrath's dry delivery is perfect for Portia, while Barton as Phil captures the air of a middle-aged intellectual whose theoretical grasp of identity issues exceeds his understanding of real human behavior.

The major drawback to both play and production is the inclusion of flashback sequences showing the breakdown of Robbie's family when he was younger. While the events detailed have a lasting, debilitating effect on the adult Robbie, it's not necessary for us to actually see them; they come across as clichéd and overly melodramatic, and the performers of these segments -- Gregory Northrop, Lana Marks, and Nathalie Altman -- are not as strong as the rest of the cast. The expository information contained in these scenes could have been easily revealed within the main storyline without too many changes in the script.

Even with this imperfection, the play remains strong, and it is sensitively directed by Gary Shrader. The majority of the characters are rendered with such complexity that it's easy to form attachments to them. As a result, the dark conclusion of Paradise is emotionally devastating.