by Cheryl King · October 19, 2014
At the end of Sweet, Sweet Spirit, we don’t know if Tyler, the teenage son, lying unconscious in a hospital bed, will live or die. But we know a lot about the family members who compete for the rights to raise him. In this collection of brilliant performances, Dino Petrera’s is the most understated. Kudos to him for his still and patient portrayal of a gay teenager, whose hookup with an older man has earned him a near fatal beating from his father.
His grandmother, stiff-necked and Pentecostal, living in a tiny southwestern town, believes she and God are the only ones who can provide the boy what he needs. And her ideas of what he needs are based on her beliefs, beliefs which led to choices that have damaged both her children – the boy’s father Jimmy and the boy’s aunt Jennifer.
It would be easy for a person like me, forced to go to church until I rebelled at 18, to simply dislike Nanna Jo, the grandmother played by Kathleen O’Neill. You can see why her daughter and son dislike her. She’s judgmental, stubborn, and totally convinced of her own righteousness. Carol Carpenter has written her expertly and Ms. O’Neill embodies her perfectly. She’s constantly pulling her sweater closed, and crossing her arms to hold it (and her mind) shut. But then she gets involved again, and the sweater opens up, and she’s once again unprotected and vulnerable. It’s a small behavior that reveals her inability to shut out what’s happening, or to use her old habits to manage it. Under the hard circumstances of the story, played out mostly in the hospital room, we are able to detect the small shifts in her that culminate in an accommodation both unexpected and somehow inevitable.
It IS very easy for me, that same doubting Thomas who left the church at 18, to identify with the sister, Tyler’s aunt, played by Carol Hickey. She’s a champion, for Tyler, for secular humanists, and for women who choose to have careers instead of babies. And she stands up to her mother; no easy feat. She has spent her life standing up to people, and has earned the right to some freedom. Yet she’s willing to take on the troublesome son of her brother, because it’s the right thing to do.
All the people competing to care for Tyler stand up to each other, and they stand FOR something – for freedom, for family, for their place in the world. Though we recognize all the forces at play in the lives of these characters, we are not able to pigeonhole them. Carpenter has created personalities whose history has shaped them, and whose actions, while believable, are not predictable.
Gary Hilborn is Jimmy, Tyler’s dad, whose assault on his son is the precipitating incident in the play. At first the impulse is to write him off as a brute, but his explanations for his behavior take us squarely into that moral grey area that lets abusers get away with it. He has a heart, and he really cares – he just doesn’t know what to do. Jimmy’s remorse is clear, as the play progresses, but his family has had enough. His behavior is part of an old pattern. It’s hard to fault them when they give him no quarter.
A standout performance is Deanna McGovern. She’s captivating as the shrewd, tacky and selfish Suzanne, Tyler’s mom and Jimmy’s wife. She wants her son, it’s clear, and she loves him, but she is not qualified to raise him, a reality that becomes clearer as the story progresses. It’s delightful to discover what she IS good at, and those scenes in the play are a joy to witness. Carol Carpenter’s characters, Suzanne in particular, force us to re-examine our set attitudes about people, and our comfortable prejudices.
The wild card in the situation is Kendall, played by David Stallings. I won’t be a spoiler and give away his connection to the other characters, but his appearance on the scene is dramatic and galvanizing. He’s a powerful actor, slight in build, but riveting in his intensity. His humanity shines like a diamond, as he skillfully navigates the whirlpool of family dysfunction.
Director Joan Kane has made brilliant staging choices, and the set and lighting design, by David Goldstein, are both simple and apt. A chorus of dissonant life-support machine beeps fills the transitions from one scene to another, as the nurse, subtly played by London Griffith, comes and goes, providing the authenticity of a real hospital setting. A path of gravel outside the square playing area keeps us rooted in the rural setting, while the inside path the actors take to get into Tyler’s room provides that slightly claustrophobic and corralled feeling of a hospital corridor.
Carol Carpenter has written a moving and relevant story that illustrates the love and forgiveness that are possible when people can agree on what’s important. Our somnolent Tyler is a unifying force, drawing the best out of those who have gathered to discuss his future, if he has one.