When Lilacs Last
nytheatre.com review by Amy E. Witting
August 22, 2010
When Lilacs Last is presented as part of FringeHIGH. It focuses on two children, Jackie O'Donnell and Brendan Conlin, who are both studying poetry in school. Brendan (the star football player) seeks the help of Jackie (the bullied "A" student) when he fails to understand the poetry of Walt Whitman that has been assigned in English class. Both young boys have abusive fathers who have been to war and back and have years' worth of pent-up rage inside of them. The poetry, I gathered from the program, is supposed to relate to the story that is unfolding for the audience. Unfortunately the poems, all from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, were hard to hear at the performance attended.
The play is set in South Philadelphia in 1955, the year Rosa Parks took a front seat on a bus, and the naming of the Walt Whitman Bridge created a revolt by the Catholic Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, stating that "Whitman's major works exhibit a revolting homosexual imagery that is not confined to a few isolated passages, but permeates the fetid whole."
Tony Devaney Morinelli, writer/director, has put together an interesting piece that could evoke real conversation if the words were able to be heard and the staging more conducive to the 99-seat Connelly Theatre.
The actors break the fourth wall on multiple occasions, often leaving someone in a non-committed tableau behind. When the main actors address the audience they come out on steps that are placed too far forward forcing the lights to shine directly over the top of the audience. I understand, and respect, the device that Morinelli is shooting for, but wish he could have used more of the stage to help connect the poetry with the play itself.
There are also problems with the writing. The boys' relationships with their fathers unfold in an overly dramatic style. The violent scenes are brave, and executed with care, but the overall piece is predictable and trite. I also questioned that Brendan, the football star, read all 700+ pages of Leaves of Grass in the timeframe presented to the audience. I hope that in future productions Morinelli looks at the continuity of the piece and examines the importance of small details. He has presented us with a heartbreaking coming-of-age story in a time of bigotry, and I would love to have been more engaged in that world.
When Lilacs Last has its few moments where I found myself relating to Jackie O'Donnell, played by the talented James Deitrich. Deitrich (who is only playing the part for the first half of the run) is a very interesting actor to watch on stage. He embodies the character of Jackie, and takes us on his journey.
This play is a bold endeavor by Morinelli, and I hope he continues to develop and workshop this piece. It excites me that this piece is creating a much-needed conversation. For this, When Lilacs Last should be applauded.