Except for the inevitable sweating, puking and dying, deathbed dramas are no different from other family reunion plays — pure hell on auds who can’t relate to the friends and relatives who have gathered to pay their respects and then turn on one another like a pack of wolves. Irish scribe Aidan Mathews doesn’t advance the cause by populating his play with the usual suspects — saintly son, black sheep brother, difficult mother, uninhibited girlfriend, kindly neighbor and father-figure priest — and letting them natter on interminably without arriving at a single original thought about the matters of religious faith that obsess them.
Although the playwright uses his gift of gab to put a lyrical gloss to the deathbed banter, the character relationships are so obvious and the conflicts so predictable that prospects for surprise or enlightenment are nil. Nor does it help for helmer M. Burke Walker to direct the static drama with all the hems and haws and meaningful silences of real time, which only prolongs the pain.
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The cast is pro and works smartly as an ensemble, but the characters they play are too familiar to inspire them to thespic heights. Ean Sheehy is suitably courageous as Jordan McHenry, the gentle young man dying at home of a brain tumor. J. Kennedy contributes all the sparks as his brother Marcus, a hot-wired manic-depressive whose tender feelings for his brother don’t stop him from initiating a deathbed competition for their mother’s love and approval. Barbara Sims’ rather chilly handling of the grieving mother might be traced to the fact that she looks young enough to play his sister — and probably knows it.
That’s the core group and their issues are pretty raw and basic. Three subsidiary figures — a relentlessly cheery Methodist neighbor (John Seidman); a Roman Catholic priest (Colin Lane) whose missionary experiences have shaken his faith; and Marcus’ girlfriend (Jessica Dickey), a nice Protestant girl who exercises her simple prayer-book beliefs with the utmost pragmatism — are on hand to keep the conversation on its faith-based track.
Like the title says, “Communion” is about the coming together of people whose personal belief structures are challenged by the fact of death, but who are ultimately drawn together in their contemplation of its metaphysical mystery. Although it might have merit as a teaching tool, it’s deadly drama.