As we grow to adulthood, we begin to see our parents through the eyes of an adult rather than through the fantasies of a child. At some point during that process, the relationship between a parent and child can often become contentious. In “A Stone Carver” at The Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, a now-adult son must come to terms with his cantankerous father with whom he’s had little contact in recent times. The result is one of the best and most memorable plays I’ve experienced so far this season.
The son of an aging, old-world craftsman returns home to visit his father, but with a secret agenda: to convince his dad to move out of the home his widowed father built with his own hands to make way for a new freeway off-ramp. Fireworks between the two erupt the minute Raff (Matthew David) arrives at the locked gate with Janice (Charlyn Swarthout), his soon-to-be wife whom his father has never met. Agostino (Guy Sanville), a Sicilian immigrant, was long ago told by his father that “no one will take what’s yours in America” – and true to what his father said, Agostino both refuses to leave and threatens to shoot anyone who tries to take his property from him. As a result, the rest of the neighborhood has been torn down around him, and his closest neighbors are the rats who have moved in looking for food. And the cops are ready to move in and forcibly remove him.
Raff can’t understand why his father won’t accept the buyout the state is offering for his property; after all, the house is looking rather seedy. So how will he get his father to leave? And more importantly, can these two men put aside their life-long differences to achieve an outcome that will not only resolve the current crisis, but repair their relationship as well?
Having grown up half Italian in a neighborhood in which many of my friends and classmates had parents who came to Detroit from “the old country” – Sicily and various small towns in Italy, in particular – I immediately identified with the characters in William Mastrosimone’s play. Like Agostino, many of the fathers were multi-generational craftsman whose sons weren’t interested in continuing the family business. While it was apparent as an outsider that the fathers loved their sons, it was equally obvious that it wasn’t easy for the fathers to watch as their sons rejected the wisdom and traditions of the past as they embraced the future America had to offer them. The result was often a loud and contentious relationship between the generations, with neither side truly appreciating or understanding the positions or goals of the other.
That’s certainly the case with Raff and Agostino. Interestingly enough, one might assume somewhat of a father-son relationship exists between David and Sanville as well. David has grown and matured as a young actor since coming to The Purple Rose a handful of seasons back, thanks in part to the guidance of Artistic Director Sanville, who has utilized him in many notable productions since his arrival. So it’s great fun watching these two – teacher and student, father and son – storm the stage together in a production that saw the audience leap to its feet seconds into the curtain call on opening night. And deservedly so.
Raff’s hurt and pain is apparent despite the honor and respect he tries to show his father – and, more importantly, the harsh treatment he receives from him. Although much of David’s character is conveyed through his physical actions and reactions – his walk and the tautness of his muscles, for example – David also excels at revealing Raff’s inner thoughts and feelings via his eyes and facial expressions.
Not to be outdone, Swarthout displays her deep understanding of her character the minute she appears on stage; her wide-eyed, jaw-dropping reaction to the bombastic Agostino is priceless. And as Janice slowly warms to and better understands her father-in-law-to-be, Swarthout’s portrayal charms both Agostino and the audience alike.
The show’s success, however, hinges on the believability of Agostino. With dialogue filled with fractured English and plenty of Italian, it would be easy to make him a caricature. In Sanville’s expert hands, however, we’re given a strong and sympathetic man who simply wants to live out his life in a home filled with beautiful memories – and a father who wants only what’s best for his son, although it might not always look that way. If I didn’t know better, I’d believe Sanville’s accent is real – remember, I’ve spent my life around old-world Italians – and there’s no emotional beat that’s missed, thanks to his excellent understanding of the character he’s playing. It’s a masterful performance from start to finish.
What’s also astonishing is the effort by first-time director Rhiannon Ragland. The pacing is perfect, the staging is clear and concise, and all the show’s elements come together quite nicely.
That includes an impressive set (with a cool back yard) by Daniel C. Walker, and the perfect lighting effect to close the show by Dana White. And the sound choices by Quintessa Gallinat – from the tinkering sounds before the show to the selection of song as the audience leaves the theater – couldn’t be better.
(One final note: Don’t be surprised if you hear chuckles from scattered parts of the audience as Sanville delivers certain lines. Those of us who understand snippets of Italian earned curious looks from nearby audience members on opening night as we were the only ones laughing at some of Agostino’s lines. I may not be able to speak the language, but my grandmother and friends’ fathers taught me enough to appreciate these little insights into Sanville’s character!)
‘A Stone Carver’
The Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park St., Chelsea. Wednesday-Sunday through March 10, with occasional Tuesday performances. $17.50-$40. 734-433-7673. http://www.purplerosetheatre.org