Saturday, April 2, 2011

Theatre review: "Mercy and the Firefly" at Point Park U's The Rep- Sunday 3rd March 2011

Pittsburgh’s Amy Hartmann continues to come up with interesting, unconventional, original and complex plays. The latest is Mercy and the Firefly presented by Point Park U’s The Rep. I’m not sure what she’s trying to tell us this time, but certainly the cast makes all the speeches and the feelings completely alive and constantly convincing even as the play lurches to an overly melodramatic ending.

As before, Hartmann imaginatively ventures into alternative realities rather than into something resembling life as we know it. This can present problems, but director Melissa Martin and her fine cast depict this as happening to real people, even when elements don’t hold up logically.

I suspect that major underlying themes are resurrection and redemption. I say resurrection because a previously murdered parochial school teenager, Aisha Sun, frames the opening vigorously spouting profanity-laden rap even though we later learn that she was mute as well as mentally and physically impaired. Later, too, her ghost keeps haunting a witness to the murder, school-mate Mercy Rivera. Meanwhile, talk of tenets of the Catholic religion surface and re-surface, dealing with, among other things, the idea of transubstantiation. Plus a dead romance re-kindles between Lucy Clark, a school-teaching nun, and her former boyfriend, recovering junkie Oliver Hill.

All this and more is crammed into two vigorous hours full of interesting back-stories, which, for a long time at the start, seem to be the entire focus rather than do actions or developments. Ultimately everything starts to churn and whirl in many directions like the spiky spokes of a quirky wheel.

The overall details of Mercy and The Firefly are not hard to follow. Lucy took pity on Aisha, and, physically comforting the child, was suspended for doing so. She then kidnapped Mercy, bringing her home to Homestead (get it?) to keep her out of harm’s way. But, for reasons not clear, she asks Oliver to lodge Mercy in his home. There the temporarily mute Mercy turns to verbally abusing Oliver with profanity-laden street talk and tries to seduce him. You may wonder why and wonder about the reason for only using that language once, never again with him or anyone else. Among other things, Lucy feels she’s losing her faith and desperately wants to know who is her father, since her mother, Vivian, has never told her the truth. Moreover Vivian believes she is doing good works by catering last suppers to death-row inmates. Some symbolisms seem obvious. Other less-believable developments make me wonder if they are meant to be symbolic. As for the firefly of the title, that word and the subject get lost in the murkiness.

This and other underlying background, such as street-gang violence and the specifics of life in Homestead, which, here, looks generic, keeps on coming in a story full of colorful details where, from start to finish, striking-looking Shammen McCune makes Lucy lucidly complex and compelling. As Vivian, Penelope Lindblom always convincingly conveys the woman’s sorrowful, child-like confusion. The role of Mercy is played by University of Pittsburgh sophomore Chelsea Mervis who expertly brings believability to her multiple, inconsistent dimensions. Patrick Jordan has the role of Oliver, the least developed character of the four. On preview night he made the man seem real without adding any potential subtleties.

Director Melissa Martin keeps everything in vital motion and, admirably, gets the cast to play this sincerely. That makes as much out the script as possible rather than coming up with some kind of stylization to incorporate disparate elements. Adding to the sense of substance, sound designer Steve Shapiro enriches the feeling by framing scenes using recorded performances by Scala & Kolacny Brothers, a Belgian girls' choir which often performs rock songs in ways that sound like sacred music.

You will likely stay engaged with the total effect, with its resemblance to a well-produced, dark, off-beat movie. So long as you don’t need to see it all clearly.

Mercy and the Firefly continues through April 17th at Pittsburgh Playhouse’s Studio Theater-222 Craft Avenue, Oakland. 412/ 392-8000 or online at

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