Asolo Rep's Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Flashes Back to the 1970s
You don’t have to be Irish, or Catholic, or even have any memories of the year 1973 to appreciate Katie Forgette’s Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, now onstage at Asolo Rep. But the comedy, with some dramatic moments, may hit home more closely if any of those apply to you.
I can check two of those boxes myself (well, maybe three, since I probably have a drop or two of Irish blood). So this production, which centers on the working-class O’Shea family at a critical moment in their lives, felt pretty believable to me, aided by the sound design by Sharath Patel (oh, those '70s hits), the costumes by Dee Sullivan, and the scenic design by Riw Rakkulchon, filled with garish wallpaper, cheap wood looks and lots of holy pictures. Was there ever a more hideous era?
Our narrator for this memory play, Linda (Erin O’Connor), the elder daughter of the clan, acknowledges that when it came to clothing, the 1970s were awful. But they were also pretty awful for women trying to break out of long-held gender roles. Looking back on her past, Linda may have had Gloria Steinem as a role model, but she still had to deal with the reality of a judgmental parish priest (Jay Russell, in another unlikable clergyman role after playing Cardinal Richelieu in Asolo Rep’s The Three Musketeers).
Father Lovett plays a key role in the story because he’s the one who accidentally hears a taped recording of Linda’s explanation of the birds and the bees to younger sister Becky (Willa Carpenter). It’s not that Linda’s version is wrong; he just doesn’t like the way, or even the fact, that she does it. So he’s determined to punish the O’Sheas in the worst way possible—by damaging their reputation in their church and community.
That’s when Linda’s aunt Teri (Suzanne Grodner), who’s trying to become more of an activist in the world, and her mom Jo (Lise Bruneau), heretofore seemingly engaged only in cooking, cleaning, caring for her unseen (but very vocal) mother-in-law and cupcake baking for the church, spring into action. The way Teri deals with Father Lovett and parish busybody Betty Heckenbach (also played by Russell; he’s also dad Mike O’Shea) may not be entirely convincing, but it’s bound to make the audience root for her and the family to succeed against the church’s representatives.
There’s yet more plot development in this play (which runs about two hours including intermission), but we’ll save that. Suffice it to say that under the skillful direction of Celine Rosenthal, we get the laughs, the tears and the satisfaction of seeing some kind of justice done and breakthrough achieved.
The cast also succeeds at conveying the sense of a family that may sometimes be divided among themselves but united against outside interference. Russell’s performances sometimes feel over the top for my taste, but the audience responds. The real heart of the show, though, rests with the three main women of the cast—Bruneau, Grodner and O’Connor—as we follow the journeys each one of their characters must make, in a time and place where a book like Our Bodies, Our Selves was a crucial, eye-opening text. Come to think of it, it still is.
Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help continues through April 22 in rotating rep at Asolo Rep; for tickets, call (941) 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org.