- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 2004

Weddings and funerals draw out the best and worst in people. In Stephen Adly Guirgis’ rancorously funny “Our Lady of 121st Street,” a wake for the formidable nun Sister Rose brings out the true colors of those who knew her — colors that bleed cold, dark and harsh.

Mr. Guirgis doesn’t paint a pretty picture. The present and former residents of this Harlem neighborhood are not merely rough around the edges; their insides are shrapnel. For the most part, they are stuck in some dead-end situation or another because long ago they stopped knowing or caring who they were.

No one escapes Mr. Guirgis’ unflinching eye — the parish priest, Father Lux (John Dow) is a Korean War veteran and double amputee who lost his faith years ago and is mighty ticked off about it. The brain-damaged Pinky (Mando Alvarado) is a shoplifter who may or may not have had something to do with the disappearance of Sister Rose’s body from her white satin casket. Pinky is routinely ripped off by the preying slattern Norca (Roseanne Medina), who takes his disability check and spends it on drugs and booze.

The reaction to the theft of Sister Rose’s corpse forms the crux of Mr. Guirgis’ spiky character study, staged by Woolly Mammoth under the flinty direction of John Vreeke. As demonstrated in the text-heavy shows “Homebody/Kabul” and “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” Mr. Vreeke has a rare gift for making talky plays float and glide. He is also accomplished with actors, coaxing unexpected performances out of actors you think can no longer surprise you.

Known for his use of language, Mr. Guirgis is a playwright who sees profanity as an art form and forges his own eccentric patois out of street jargon and bursts of angry poetry. The pairing of Mr. Vreeke and Mr. Guirgis is inspired, resulting in a production that revels in roughness and urban despair but still manages to address matters of spirituality.

The production is funny in a signature, take-no-prisoners Woolly Mammoth sort of way. The walls of the Kennedy Center haven’t blushed this much since “Cooking With Elvis” last season. While another Woolly trademark, simulated sex scenes, are absent from “Our Lady,” the subject matter is raw, salty and intense.

Nearly everyone in this play is hard-drinking, strung-out and half-dead to themselves and the world. They are such damaged goods that even a good thing escapes them.

Edwin (Michael Ray Escamilla), Pinky’s hyper-vigilant brother, cannot accept the notion of friendship and romance with the touchingly neurotic Marcia (Maia Desanti). In a beautiful scene, possibility hangs in the air like a caress, but Edwin turns away, knowing that he is too far gone in his caretaking role to open up enough for another human being.

Rather than seize the opportunity to let go of her smoldering resentment toward her womanizing ex-husband Rooftop (Doug Brown), Inez (Aakhu Freeman) flees in a cab. In the world of 121st Street, everyone operates out of fear and brutal ignorance.

This could be as jolly as, well, a funeral, but remarkable performances by the ensemble bring the characters to roaring life. As the garrulous Rooftop, Mr. Brown shines in a hilarious scene where he delivers his first confession in 30 years in both Rabelaisian and Proustian detail to the impatient Father Lux. His comic timing — and Mr. Dow’s reaction to the torrent of sins — are impeccable, but both actors also rise ably when the emotional stakes grow high in the second act.

Mr. Escamilla stunningly portrays the frustration and dedication of someone attending to the disabled, and his scene with Miss DeSanti’s Marcia aches with unfulfilled want. Lindsay Allen provides deadpan comic relief as a cheerfully stoic interloper from Connecticut, and Brian McMonagle transcends the stereotype as a flaming homosexual from Wisconsin.

The lone fault in this nasty and gleaming production is that Mr. Guirgis’ play ultimately suffers from its episodic nature. It ends abruptly and cruelly, leaving the audience with no answers and no sense of closure.

For all we know, the characters could still be sitting in the funeral parlor or the corner bar, waiting for someone like Sister Rose to enter their lives again — someone who could uplift them or simply tell them they mattered.

****

WHAT: “Our Lady of 121st Street” by Stephen Adly Guirgis

WHERE: Woolly Mammoth at the Kennedy Center Film Theater

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Jan. 2.

TICKETS: $24 to $52

PHONE: 202/467-4600

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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