Dominic Fumusa and Kevin Corrigan
in Ninth and Joanie
(© Kate Edwards)
Dominic Fumusa and Kevin Corrigan
in Ninth and Joanie
(© Kate Edwards)
To like or not to like a play such as Brett C. Leonard's Ninth and Joanie, now being presented at the Bank Street Theatre by the vaunted Labyrinth Theater Company, is a bit beside the point. It's a play more to be endured.

The story focuses on a family in 1986 torn apart by tragedy in the streets of South Philadelphia. The first ten minutes are performed in near silence by Charlie, a man in his 60s (played with complex layers of sorrow by Bob Glaudini) and a younger, emotionally arrested, and clearly abused man named Rocco (Kevin Corrigan, giving an occasionally flat but oddly affecting performance in a difficult role). It takes most of those ten minutes to simply establish that these two are father and son. Other important character details are slow in coming. Some never arrive.

Both Leonard and his director, Mark Wing-Davey, luxuriate in these drawn-out moments of stifling, barely verbal exchanges and Beckett-like repetition. Indeed, the real dramatic tension only begins with the arrival of visitors to the house: first, Michael, a prodigal son bristling with pathos (played by the riveting Dominic Fumusa) and later on, Michael's wife, Isabella (a strong, rooted portrayal by Rosal Colón) and their son, Carlito (a grounded performance by eight-year-old Samuel Mercedes).

Moreover, for over two hours, the audience is plunked down into the midst of this suffocating atmosphere, evocatively and symbolically rendered by the design team. The somewhat grimy walls and plastic-covered furniture of David Meyer's naturalistic living room have a melancholy, lived-in feel that calls forth the ghosts that haunt this family, while the gloomy lighting of Bradley King envelops everyone, onstage and off, like the fog in a Eugene O'Neill play.

Sound designer David Bullard helps fill the silences with blasts of Vic Damone and Stevie Ray Vaughn LPs playing in a vintage stereo. Occasionally, when a record finishes, the sound of the needle caught in the groove fills the room with what almost passes as a raspy but pulsing heartbeat.

One of the highest hurdles in presenting Ninth and Joanie is that much of the action is fueled by an event more than a decade in the past, so a lot of the drama has already taken place. Leonard manages to locate a brief moment of grace in the pitiful aftermath, but a lot of patience is required of the audience to get to it.