by Aimee Todoroff · October 27, 2014
The lively notes of a charming, red-headed fiddler playing Irish standards greets the audience pre-show at Laura Pedersen’s The Brightness of Heaven, presented by Briarpatch Productions on behalf of VH Theatrical Development Foundation at the Cherry Lane Theatre. The familiar tunes, played with grace and confidence by Kendra Jo Brook, along with the well-appointed set depicting a middle-class living room circa 1974, create a comfortable, welcoming tone for this production. A quick inventory of the stage, designed to kitschy perfection by Meganne George, tells the audience all we need to know about the family that lives there. Portraits of the Pope and John F. Kennedy both have a place of honor, handmade Easter decorations are proudly displayed, family portraits abound, the fully stocked bar is within easy reach, a well-worn piano flanks the front door and the patriarch snoozes soundly in an overstuffed arm chair. The values of family, music and perhaps an over-dependence on alcohol so clearly on display are specifically dictated by the Kilgannon family’s Irish Catholic heritage.
As the live music fades out, the slumbering patriarch, Ed Kilgannon, is shooed out by the busy machinations of his wife, Joyce, and her sister, Mary, as they get their baked goods ready to bring to church. The bustle fades and we settle into the play, learning that the women are preparing a celebration in Ed’s honor, complete with a remounting of “the family act,” a song and dance routine once performed to the church community’s delight. We start to expect a homecoming, and when we get it, the play really begins. One by one, the Kilgannon brood gathers in the house, each carrying a well-known secret that they have been stifling for years. A cousin’s homosexuality, a brother’s alcoholism, just to name a few of the lesser scandals, are all well-known by the family but never acknowledged. It seems that when the Kilgannons refer to “the family act,” they’re talking about more than just a stage show.
While the older generation expects the younger to be content with a roof over their head and food on the table- a frequent refrain- just as they were, the world that the younger Kilgannon’s inhabit is radically different than that of their parents. The children grew up with the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, Watergate and the Sexual Revolution. They want honesty, not complacency, and this becomes the central conflict of the play. The leader of the charge demanding accountability within the family is the whip-smart career-woman Kathleen, played by cast standout Kendall Rileigh, who glows with an easy wit and the ferocity of her deeply held beliefs. She is well supported by the rest of the cast, especially Emily Batsford, whose comically deadpan Grace provides a much needed counterpoint to the sunshine of the rest of the family.
The hour-long play provides ample laughs along with the twists and turns that come with the revelation of family secrets, each bigger than the last. When the worrying matriarch Joyce, played by esteemed veteran Kate Kearney-Patch, declares that when “Kennedy was in the White House, it stood for clean living and family values,” we not only laugh, we are confronted with the myopia of our perspective within the present. Each generation thinks their truth is the only truth worth fighting for. In The Brightness of Heaven, this conflict of values threatens to destroy the Kilgannon family. But despite this tension, the humor of the play wins out. Even the priest sitting one row behind me left the theatre grinning.