The Heart Has a Mind of Its Own
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
September 14, 2007
Playwright Larry Kirwan takes a compassionate look at the unexplainable vagaries of grieving in his new play, The Heart Has a Mind of Its Own. While not a 9/11 play per se, its characters have all been affected by that infamous day, in the form of an offstage character that hovers over them, Rebecca-like, and haunts them in various ways every day. Kirwan's writing is strong throughout Boomerang Theatre Company's somewhat uneven production, and displays a hard-nosed sensitivity that suits his play well.
It's late summer 2004 in Rockaway, Queens as we meet Rose, a widow in her late 20s whose husband—Brian, a much-decorated NYPD lieutenant—died on 9/11. She's struggling to raise her seven-year old son alone, and maintain her unfulfilling role as the wife of a hero (Brian was killed trying to save civilians from the crumbling towers). Brian's family, thinking it's their duty to look after Rose, lovingly smother her. There's father-in-law Jimmy, a 50-ish ex-cop, whose stoic demeanor masks a tender heart (and a couple of secrets); mother-in-law Aggie, a retired schoolteacher who busies herself with church and other people's affairs to fight off the pain of her late son's absence; and twentysomething brother-in-law Kevin, a New York firefighter who still lives at home and regularly carouses at the local bar until the wee small hours.
But, Rose and Kevin also have an unspoken mutual attraction to each other. When they finally decide to act on it, a large expanse of tricky emotional terrain soon follows. Rose must be mindful of what it'll look like to the community when they see her taking up with her revered late husband's brother. Kevin worries about how Aggie will react, knowing full well the pedestal she keeps Brian's memory placed high upon. And, the furtive couple discovers they must also grapple with their own ambivalent feelings about the whole thing.
Kirwan lays out an emotional minefield for his characters to navigate, then throws in a couple of juicy subplots for good measure: Jimmy's possible extra-marital dalliance with a co-worker (she's a manager at the restaurant where he works security); and a mystery surrounding Brian's whereabouts the night before 9/11 (he never came home) and why he was at Ground Zero at all (he didn't work or have any business down there). During the course of the play old skeletons get shown the light of day, and long-hidden truths are finally revealed.
The author does a really nice job establishing the play's milieu, from the male double standard of marital fidelity to the ongoing dispute between Mets and Yankees fans. Then there's the ever-pervasive idea of doing "the right thing," a perception that trips the characters up time and time again. Kirwan also isn't above making a political statement: Jimmy's comparison of the current Iraq war to Vietnam, and his theory on the motives behind it—so that one day people will be able to buy "a Big Mac in Baghdad"—are all that need to be said about the play's ideological leanings.
Boomerang's production, on the other hand, is shaky at times. For at least the first half, the emotional urgency that courses through the script is almost completely absent from what's happening on stage. Cailin Heffernan's direction is casual to the point of lethargy, and makes the cast look under-rehearsed. It isn't until late in the second act, during a penultimate dinner scene in which everything comes out, that the production finally heats up and rises to the level of Kirwan's writing. That scene is done so well, however, that it eases the production toward a satisfying conclusion, and suggests that the show will undoubtedly improve over the course of its run.
Despite these drawbacks, The Heart Has a Mind of Its Own still has the power to move, and shows us once again that the heart is, indeed, the human body's most resilient muscle.