On paper, Laura Pedersen’s play “For Heaven’s Sake” is right in the wheelhouse of a certain segment of Buffalo’s theatergoing population.
It checks all the boxes: A religious family whose younger members are rebelling against their parents’ old-school values and demands. A healthy number of local references, from the shuttering of the steel plants to the negative effect of Bills games on church attendance. Several scenes in which characters spontaneously break into ad hoc, song-and-dance versions of old-timey standards.
On stage, it’s a different story.
The show, which opened Thursday night in the 710 Main Theatre in a clunky production that lurched violently from serious drama to no-stakes comedy and back again across two taxing hours, played like the very first workshop for an early script. Given that the show ran in New York City under a different title (“The Brightness of Heaven”) late last year, the creakiness of the production and the mechanical nature of the script are surprising.
It doesn’t help that Tom Dudzick’s expert production of “King o’ the Moon,” a play similarly fueled by nostalgia that nonetheless avoids bathing in it, is running across town at the Kavinoky Theatre. By comparison, “For Heaven’s Sake” seems like a comic strip – “Over the Tavern” by way of Goofus and Gallant.
Set in 1974, the story focuses on the tight-knit Kilgannon family, whose younger members are chafing in various predictable ways against the unforgiving strictures of the Roman Catholic Church. Their Buffalo kitchen, in Meganne George’s straightforward set, is exactly the sort of Formica-covered Irish Catholic diorama you might expect: Pope Paul VI and John F. Kennedy peer out from a wall also adorned with Irish blessings, adding two additional layers of judgment to an already deeply judgmental household.
“I wonder where it all gets us, the praying and obeying?” one conflicted character says, spelling out the moral of the story in capital letters.
The judgers-in-chief are Joyce Kilgannon (Kate Kearney-Patch) and her sister-in-law Mary Jablonski (Paula Ewin), who have inflicted on their children the strict rules about life and love imparted to them by their own parents. This is an issue for young Kathleen Kilgannon (Kendall Rileigh), who is engaged to a previously married Jewish man. It’s an issue for Mary’s son Jimmy (James Michael Lambert), who is gay. It’s an issue for duty-bound son Dennis Kilgannon (Daniel J. Self). But it’s also an issue for the audience, who can see these conflicts and their resolutions coming from several blocks away.
One major flaw of Pedersen’s script is that it is overloaded with characters. By expanding her cast beyond the nuclear family in a show that clocks in at just over two hours, she severely limits the amount of time available for character development. The result is eight cardboard figures instead of four or five realistic ones.
Another issue is the clumsy use of comedy as simple relief from the more serious elements of the play, rather than as a tool to deepen that drama. The Catholic-tinged jokes, Buffalo-centric references and voluminous musical interludes seem to come at mechanical intervals that lend the entire evening a pervasive sense of the formulaic.
The performances, while generally competent, are also marred by a comical range of botched attempts at the Buffalo accent. Some characters sound like Minnesota housewives, some like Chicago sanitation workers and others like some unholy combination of the two. Few sound as if they have ever ventured anywhere near Buffalo.
Pedersen’s script has a long way to go before it can be considered in the same league as Buffalo memory-play masters A.R. Gurney and Tom Dudzick, whose best work proves that nostalgia is a building block rather than an end in itself.