God Willing traces one family’s wake for their patriarch, Gerard Lawler. It’s hard to believe a 26-year-old wrote this play, but David McLaughlin had the right material to draw from in doing it. McLaughlin is the youngest of 11 siblings, and seems to comfortably, willingly inhabit the Irish storytelling tradition.
The play doesn’t exaggerate the sentiment of the father’s death; it finds poignant ideas without announcing itself as drama. The characters, like the overachieving lawyer-daughter and the “un-prodded prodigy” youngest son, are so distinct they feel familiar.
But as impressive as the character study is the language. McLaughlin routinely interrupts realistic dialogue with a rhyme or a word game that might normally be thought, but rarely said over a kitchen table. Word play drops into a speech unsolicited, giving someone’s gossip the touch of philosophy. But due to McLaughlin’s restraint–and maybe also because we expect an occasional rhyme at an Irish wake–these word games come off less like artsy pastiche than an unapologetic dream sequence.
When a longish (five-line), rhyme slides into a conversation, it enters like a spotlight that drains a family exchange of its small talk. When asked how close he was to his now-deceased brother, Pat Lawler (H. Clark Lee) sheds his casual language for a darker response, with a rhyme: “Close? We slept in the same bed. My head at his feet; his feet at my head.” Pause. “I can’t believe he’s dead.”
Of course this reconstruction does McLaughlin’s work some injustice, because the play’s real strength is the way it almost seamlessly combines strange and everyday language. Single scenes shift between sadness, silliness, and philosophy, with some of the quickly phrased philosophical games rewarding with ideas that linger.
For instance, Lawler’s daughter Maura (Melissa Murphy), who had cut her hair after a shameful affair, compares the phenomena of
memories with life, describing how you can look at an old picture of yourself, you can see your long hair and love it, but no amount of wishing will get you your old hair back. Her speech gains most of its meaning or dimension in a later scene, in which Uncle Pat in parallel remarks that you can remember being happy, you can look at an old picture of yourself being happy, but you can never wish yourself into a former state of mind.
So if the patriarch’s deceased and there’s no returning him, how does your family heal itself? The play’s answer is probably less believable than the more consistent darkness of the rest of his play. The solution comes through social commitment. Between scenes where the youngest son Joe (Lance Greene) fights his mom for control, Joe comes to the resolution that life is a “brief chance to build bonds with other people.” His uncle Pat reminds the family of the Irish saying that it’s best to have someone around, even if it’s only to have someone to fight with.
Whether or not the moral of loving commitment sticks, the language that delivers it does. And language isn’t the only thing that holds this play. Morna Murphy Martell does an enlivening, believable job of playing Lawler’s widow. Lance Greene, who also produced the play, becomes the show’s virtual narrator, simply by playing such an earnest protagonist. God Willing has been called too wordy more than once since its first Boston run two years ago–and it might be. But the play does always move on at the point of becoming obviously verbose. Then it doubles around, only to make fun of itself.