Go ahead and read that sentence again. St. Scarlet, a new play by Julia Jordan, has moved into the same space where such shows as Bad Boy Nietzsche! and Now that Communism is Dead My Life Feels Empty debuted. Expect lovable characters, digestible themes, and a happy ending. But check expectations for postmodernist philosophical drama at the door.
St. Scarlet follows an Irish-Catholic family living in the heart of Minnesota. Tragedy strikes the Cummins clan when the mother dies unexpectedly in her sleep, and her dysfunctional children must come to terms with their unresolved resentments. Rose (Rosemarie DeWitt), the rebellious older daughter, reacted to her mother's stand-by-your-man dedication to their absentee father by sleeping with a boy on the lawn of the Catholic school where she teaches. After that stunt, mother and daughter parted on bad terms, leaving younger daughter Ruby (Susan O'Conner) to hold the family together at the expense of her own emotional maturity. The only son, Seamus (Michael Churnus), left the family house and dropped his Celtic birth name for the Anglophone "James."
Here's where the feel-good part comes in: On a wintry night, the kids finds themselves snowbound in the old house and must learn to resolve their troubles with the help of a kind-hearted stranger. Brooklyn-born Vinny Silverstein has traveled to the Midwest to reunite with Rose, whom he met on her trip to the Eastern Seaboard; she wanted a one-night stand but he has come in search of love and, in the process, he brings his urban savvy to the rural family.
Some of the playwright's plot and character choices border on cliché. Vinny Silverstein, as readers may have already guessed, has a mixed Jewish-Italian ethnicity, and is presented as half-neurotic and half-sleazy. Rose is the ex-goth girl afraid to settle down and Ruby is the 21-year-old trapped in a Shirley Temple act. The worldly wise sister is a natural foil to the baby of the family, and Seamus is the bumpkin subject of sight gags involving parkas and home improvement.
The best plays of this type spin the familiar in original and unpredictable ways; St. Scarlet, an odd mixture of The Beauty Queen of Leenane and something by Neil Simon, transcends sitcom fare through strong writing and solid acting. When Seamus calls the house a "shithole," Ruby retorts, "It's not shit, it's Irish." In another scene, Vinny goes offstage to sleep with Rose and Seamus walks in on them. Another play would have the brother scream and then, blackout; this play has Vinny run onstage half-naked before the blackout. (This use of partial nudity presumably signals an attempt at something more avant-garde.)
St. Scarlet is full of intelligence and wit; even its title is a smart play on the concept of fractured identity. Although there is no Irish patron saint named Scarlet, Ruby points out that "Scarlet O'Hara was Irish." The children have as much trouble holding on to their heritage as they do staying together. Seamus, née James, is on a constant flight from his roots; Rose pretends that her ethnic history doesn't exist and Ruby uses it as a blanket to avoid life. Ironically, their hero is a man caught between two different cultural backgrounds.
Actor Chris Messina has assembled a talented cast in his directorial debut: Ivan Martin plays the multi-faceted Vinny beautifully, offering the New York audience a knowing glimpse at an Italian Jew from the boroughs. Rosemarie DeWitt brings to her character the resignation of someone who has been around the block several times. With a gawky stance and a squeaky voice, Susan O'Connor plays Ruby as the girl acting too cute for her age. Michael Chernus stays grounded while playing his comic character, and Joan Jaffry Poust delivers a wonderfully wooden performance as the mother's corpse.
Set designer Erik Flatmo has created a convincing Minnesota house within Ontological's small church space. The dirty linoleum floor looks as if many snow-covered boots have trod upon it, a shamrock-shaped plate is displayed on a wall next to a picture of JFK, and a wood-burning heater leaves a rusty stain on another wall. Most atmospheric of all is the snow that falls outside the window; this a set that belongs in a Broadway house. At any rate, St. Scarlet may well be the first Ontological Theater show that will appeal to the mainstream.