Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
This is the first produced play for playwright John Woehrle, who also appears in the role of Father Daniels. The play was inspired by the real-life childhood experiences of Woehrle's friend and fellow cast member, Jim Hanson. The play has the feel of truth and avoids using clichés as shortcuts to expressing feelings or moving the plot forward. Woehrle has crafted dialog that captures the way people speak to one another within the constrained roles that they play. A rising line of tension in each of the two acts keeps the audience engaged and avoiding predictable outcomes.
At the center of the play is Michael Connor, nearing the end of his senior year at factitious Saint Joseph University. Michael's father, Senator Allen Connor, is an alumnus of St. Joe's. The Senator and his wife Mary are both long-standing friends of Father Thomas Daniels, who has just been installed as the school's new president. Mary has faithfully gone to confession every Wednesday for decades, with Father Daniels granting her absolution, and Father Daniels guided Michael as a Catholic school student. With his graduation approaching, Michael, who has always been a solid student, has begun to skip classes, suffer a slump in grades, taken up drinking, quit the debate team, and become uncommunicative at home. When Michael takes an overdose of medication, his parents, at a loss to understand what is happening, ask their friend Father Daniels to find out if anything has happened at St. Joe's to prompt these changes in their son.
Along with his parents' and Father Daniel's concern, Michael has the support of college psychologist Sister Kenny, his academic advisor Father Randall, and Theresa Sanchez, a newly made friend and fellow student who left life in the gangs of Los Angeles behind to become a nun. As the son of a senator, his hospitalization has also drawn the attention of a reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Sylvia Haskell, but it is unclear whether or not she is to be trusted. In the way things happen in real life, the truth spills out bit by bit, each revelation accompanied by the anguish that revisits Michael at every step.
Though Trust is a solid and moving play, it is sometimes weighed down by the number of meetings between characters. In life it is true that the path to working through a problem often takes numerous appointments, as well as impromptu meetings, but on stage some of these slow down, rather than enliven the drama. Rich Remedios's direction might do more to tighten the space between these episodes. On a couple of occasions, the play veers in ways that feel more like devices to ratchet up the tension than as windows into the truth. For example, a scene of several characters gathered in Sister Kenny's office with the intent of leveling biting accusations against one individual generates sparks, but feels at odds with a school psychologist's professional standards and practice. Yet, if Trust can benefit from some pruning here, some quickening there, it remains a powerful and important portrait of the pain inflicted on a young person who, through no fault of his own, feels like damaged property, as well as the grief inflicted on those who love him.
An outstanding acting ensemble contributes immensely to the play's impact. Michael Schwengel as the tormented young Michael Connor at first seems perhaps too old for a fourth year college student, but he quickly demonstrates the mannerisms and vocal tics of a young man consumed with self-negating thoughts, and fearful of entering adulthood. His use of sarcasm and withdrawal as defenses are fully convincing, and when he does break down with the truth, he conveys a tempest of anger, sorrow, and fear that is both fierce and heartbreaking.
Jim Hanson and Ellen Apel are powerfully moving as Michael's parents, each conveying their different ways of dealing with the distressing truth with great conviction. In particular, as Jim Hanson's personal story is the wellspring from which Michael's story has been drawn, his portrayal of that character's father is certainly informed by painfully gained insights. Appel at first depicts Mary Connor as kind of scatterbrainedwhen we first see her, she is quite tipsy following the party honoring Father Daniel's installation as college presidentbut we see her gather steely resolve in facing Michael's truth.
In the role of Father Daniels, playwright Woehrle excels in displaying an experienced church leader's credentials in his calm response to upheaval, his political savvy, and his reassuring manner toward students and parishioners. Lynda Dahl imbues Sister Kenny with clear-headed determination to keep her students as her priority as an outcome of the faith that has brought her to her vocation. Adam Glatz gives a sympathetic portrait of Father Randall, a man who has had to face his own demons in life; Reyna Rios beautifully bridges the rough urban past and open-hearted aspirations of Theresa; and Molly Pach conveys intelligence and drive as the reporter. Mike Novak, as Bishop Castle, provides what comic relief is to be found in Trust, as a senior clergyman living out his emeritus status by discovering the wonders of his desktop computer.
Trust is played in a bare, square space, with no real set design, utilizing square blocks, chairs, and a desk to create the Connor's living room, various college offices, a church retreat center and the newspaper office. Ray Stevenson's lighting design brings variations of mood as well as drawing focus within these settings. Jmarie's costumes designs embellish each character's persona, from Father Daniel's priest's collar to Mary's conservatively stylish political wife to Theresa's edgy outfits to Michael's anonymous student garb.
John Woehrle openly shares the fact that Jim Hansen's experience that inspired him to write I>Trust occurred in the context of a Lutheran Church, but he chose to set the play in a Catholic school and church environment. He states "Jim's denomination was Lutheran and I'm Catholic. At the time Jim shared his story a lot was coming out in the news about the Twin Cities Archdiocese clergy abuse, so that's the direction I chose to take the story. Plus as a writer it was an environment (Catholicism) I was more familiar with." I have no argument with dramatic license, but it is worth noting that, much as the Catholic Church has been maligned for abuse occurring in many locations (along with the cover-ups of those abuses), they do not have a monopoly on the problem.
Trust is absolutely worth seeing. Given the subject matter, it is not easy to sit through, but it importantly not only sheds light on the issue of childhood abuse, but draws a focus on the hornet's nest of feelings the victims of abuse must work through in order to live whole lives. Its current run at The Theater Lab is brief, but hopefully Trust will have a continued life and there will be future opportunities for it to be seen by audiences in the Twin Cities and beyond.
Trust, produced by Black Box Theatre, continues at The Lab Theater, 700 1st Street North, Minneapolis through August 28, 2016. Tickets: $25.00; Student Rush tickets: $15.00 at the door. For tickets call 612-333-7977 or go to www.thelabtheater.org. For more information on Black Box Theatre, visit www.blackboxstcloud.com.
Writer and Producer: John Woehrle; Director: Rich Remedios; Costume Design: Jmarie's; Lighting Design: Ray Stevenson; Sound Design: Inna Skogerboe; Props: Lynda Dahl; Stage Manager: Sarah Wolf
Cast: Ellen Apel (Mary Connor), Lynda Dahl (Sister Kenny), Adam Glatz (Father Randall), Jim Hanson (Allen Connor), Mike Novak (Bishop Castle), Molly Pach (Sylvia Haskell), Reyna Rios (Theresa Sanchez), Michael Schwengel (Michael O'Connor), John Woehrle (Father Daniels).
Reviewed by Arty Dorman