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Curtain Call Theatre offering a humorous family drama

Cast of “Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help”. From left to right: Talia Hotaling, Robin Leary, Steven Leifer, Pamela O'Connor, Erin Morrison
Curtain Call Theater
Cast of “Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help”. From left to right: Talia Hotaling, Robin Leary, Steven Leifer, Pamela O'Connor, Erin Morrison

There’s an understandable tendency to compare “Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help” to a Neil Simon play. It’s a nostalgia-filled work about a family filled with distinctive personalities. It’s warm, often funny and sometimes insightful.

To my way of thinking, the work that continues at Curtain Call Theatre in Latham is more like something Jean Shepherd, the author of “A Christmas Story,” might have created.

Simon wrote comedies that had frequent laugh-out-loud moments. His work is filled with jokes and wisecracks. In his later plays like “Lost in Yonkers,” the warmth of family obligation was as important as jokes.

Shepherd was a humorist more than a comic writer. His gentle humor came more from the situation, not from one-liners. We felt we knew Simon’s characters. We believe Shepherd’s characters are us. Though not a Neil Simon or Jean Shepherd, Forgette’s writing shares many of the same qualities.

A pleasure of “Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help” is that it will make sense to anyone raised in a culture or religion that fosters guilt. Of course, this means nearly everyone - especially someone who grew up in the 1950’s, 60’s, or in this case the 70’s.

The play centers about the Irish-Catholic O’Shea family. The year is 1973. The worse thing that can happen to the O’Shea family is a visit by the pastor to talk to the father about saving the soul of his 19-year old daughter, Linda.

Such incidents never remain private conversations. It will be all over the neighborhood by the time Father Lovett leaves the house. Their gossipy neighbor, Betty Heckenbach, will be sure to make that happen. Adding some fun to the production is that the father, the priest and the gossip, all irritating types, are played in a variety of comic ways by Steve Liefer.

Adding to the family dynamic is the mother Jo, who appears to be a version of Mrs. Cleaver from “Leave It To Beaver.” The father Mike, could have been Archie Bunker’s best buddy. And there is Terri, Jo’s sister, who is a slightly less caustic version of “Maude”. Excuse the 1970’s sit-com references to define the characters, but if the cliché fits ….

As in all families, the sisters could not be more different. Pam O’Conner is adorable as Jo, the woman who seems to have just stepped out of a detergent commercial. She loves her children and even honors her subservient role in the family. Robin Leary brings a comic cynicism to Terri, who is the voice of reality in the family.

The one character that breaks the mold is the 13-year-old daughter, Becky. Erin Morrison is a charmer as the precocious movie fanatic who walks around acting like Philip Marlowe in a film noir.

Her taping a rather coarse description of a “birds and bees talk” given to her by Linda is what starts the family crisis. When it’s heard by Father Lovett, it’s no pun to say, “All hell breaks loose.”

This is but one of several crises in the worst four days of Linda’s life. She is the narrator of this memory play, which often breaks the fourth wall to remind us that one person’s memory belongs to everyone who shared that memory. And sometimes there are different versions of the same memory.

Played by Talia Hotailing, Linda, is an aspiring feminist with confidence, charm and provides an engaging connection with the audience. Linda is the glue of the production, Terri its strength, Jo its warmth, Becky its uniqueness and Mike its chauvinism.

“Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help” takes time to win you over. Part of that is because of the playwright’s over use of direct address. The first act is dominated by people speaking directly to audience. Even Forgette pokes fun at it throughout the play.

Another problem for most of the first act is the stakes are low, to the point of being almost non-existent. Once the crisis shows itself, so does the humanity of the family.

This carries into the much stronger second act. Indeed the two most satisfying moments in the play are the scene with Terri and Father Lovett and one between the mother and Linda, both in act two.

Director David Bunce is terrific with guiding and trusting his performers. The long monologues in act one are delivered with honesty and sincerity, so that we truly get to know the characters.

It would have been an easy choice to have the family look silly in the first act, but it would have destroyed the warm charm of act two. Bunce sets a pace that is perfect for a two-hour play that could have seemed a lot longer.

Best of all, we end up caring about every character. Indeed, the final direct address of the play is a moving and solid end to a heartwarming play.

“Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help” Plays Curtain Call Theatre in Latham, Thursdays to Sunday until May 6. For tickets and schedule information go to curtaincalltheatre.com or call 518-877-7529.

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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