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Deirdre O'Connell and Christopher Thornton
in Pyretown.
(Photo © Josh Bradford)
It's rare for a play to deal with the intersection of class and disability, and even rarer for this to be done as well as it is in Pyretown. John Belluso's play is a smart, funny, and somewhat depressing look at two misfit individuals as they navigate the ins and outs of the American health care system while possibly falling in love. The New York premiere production of this engaging, character-driven piece is being presented by the Keen Company under the capable direction of artistic director Carl Forsman.

Louise "Lou" Josephson (Deirdre O'Connell) is a 39-year-old, divorced, single mother raising three kids. Harry Weston (Christopher Thornton) is a 25-year-old, wheelchair-bound community college student who, when asked his profession, declares himself to be "a radical leftist web designer." Both are poor: Lou is on welfare, while Harry collects Social Security Disability. Their first conversation takes place in the waiting area of a hospital emergency room, and it sets the tone for their future interactions.

Both actors are terrific and have great chemistry with each other. O'Connell brings a depth of emotion to her portrayal as well as a warm, earthy sensuality that makes it easy to see why Harry is attracted to her. Thornton, who is actually paralyzed from the waist down, created the role of Harry in the play's world premiere staging at the Geva Theatre in Rochester, New York. He plays the part with a laid-back simplicity that is nonetheless thoroughly commanding.

As written by Belluso and brought to life by these talented actors, Lou and Harry are sharply drawn characters with many contradictions, weaknesses, and hidden reserves of strength. Harry's disability, for example, is not the major obstacle in his life, and his attitude towards the fact that he's confined to a wheelchair is refreshingly lacking in self-pity. "I'm over it," he tells Lou in regard to the accident that changed his life; he's learned to adapt. The loss that seems to have affected him more is the death of his mother from cancer: She couldn't work the system, Harry feels, and she died because she didn't have the strength to question her doctors and demand the kinds of tests that may have saved her life. Harry holds on to a lot of anger; he has learned that you have to manipulate the health care system if you want to survive. When Lou tries to dismiss his advice, saying that he is not an expert on everything, Harry states: "No, I'm not. But I'm crippled and I'm poor and I live in America, so I am an expert on this."

Several moments within Pyretown, like this one, are unapologetically preachy yet also dramatically compelling. While Belluso is certainly critical of the lack of an adequate national health care system in the United States, he does not turn his play into a simple "us versus them" view of the situation. His protagonists also make mistakes, and a crucial phone call to an HMO case worker puts them at odds with each other as to the best way to receive the kind of medical care that is needed.

The play's action is set in multiple locations within a small New England town, and designer Nathan Heverin provides just enough scenic elements to suggest each different environment: a rack of potato chips stands in for a grocery store, a bed is enough to suggest Lou's bedroom, two seats and a free-standing steering wheel indicate a car, and so on. Josh Bradford's lighting occasionally helps to distinguish which locale the characters are in, but there's no attempt to be strictly naturalistic. Although Pyretown has only two characters, others are spoken to, including Lou's three kids and a nurse at the hospital. O'Connell is particularly good at making it seem that these unseen figures are present. When she changes her tone to speak to her kids, for example, you'd almost swear that they are actually in the room with her.

Belluso avoids the kind of feel-good happy ending that we might desire for the characters, instead offering a sobering reflection on the choices that one must make when operating at a socio-economic disadvantage. Pyretown doesn't offer easy solutions to the problems it raises, but it makes the audience acutely aware that such problems will not simply disappear.

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