An alert audience could perceive upon entering the Atwater Village Theatre that the world of the play they are about to experience is askew. Set designer Amanda Knehans’ structural design features a variety of wooden tables and chairs, some standing normally, some tilted on their sides, as well as wooden beams of various sorts angled from floor to ceiling in haphazard fashion. The set pieces, as well as the floor, are unified by a burnished red-brown color. There is a typing table down center upon which sits a manual portable typewriter. The scenic design is an excellent preparation for Yusuf Toropov’s new play, An Undivided Heart, which is fraught with complex emotion and conflict on the most personal of levels.
In a dreamlike opening prelude, the typewriter appears to have a flame rising from the typebars. A man enters dressed in black who will later be identified as a Roman Catholic priest named Mike (Matthew Gallenstein). He encounters a pre-pubescent girl dressed in white (Ann’Jewel Lee), cited as Chorus in the program, who seems to be reciting biblical passages. When she leaves, the priest sees that the palm of his hand is bloody.
The action kicks off with a bang when the scene shifts to a conflict between Lynne (the extraordinary, fierce Alana Dietze), the operator of a local dump, and Max (Tim Wright), a mild mannered editor who wants to leave after doing his dumping duties. Unfortunately for him, Lynne has locked the gates at precisely the closing time of four pm and she won’t open them, suggesting instead with a snarl that he walk home. The woman has good reason for her hostility that really has nothing to do with Max. Her husband is dead, the Massachusetts town where they live has a water supply polluted by local industries, and she, eight months pregnant, is starting to experience labor pains. When Lynne’s pain overwhelms her, she allows Max to take her to the hospital.
Set in the summer of 1992 and the two story threads thus presented, Mr. Toropov’s play takes the audience on a thrilling, emotional ride that weaves the two lines of plot together. Father Mike has written a book that exposes a pedophile priest, which brings him into inevitable conflict with his condescending, smooth talking Cardinal (John Getz), who, of course, councils him to desist, which he reluctantly agrees to do, sealing the deal with a kiss of the Cardinal’s ring. This turns out to be bad news for his friend and editor, Max.
The story expands in unique, interesting ways. Max seems to have formed a bond with the fierce Lynne after his experience with her in the maternity ward. He is careful with her, like plucking a prickly pear from a cactus. Lynne’s misery and venomous attitudes have their roots in her history. Her mother, Ruth (Sigute Miller), is a hyper-religious Catholic who has her own physical and emotional problems. Max turns out to be the novitiate of a Zen Buddhist monk, Janice (Jennifer A. Skinner), who schools him with tough-love authority. She eventually comes into contact with Father Mike in significant ways, when, after more dreamlike encounters with the mysterious Chorus, he consults her looking for some kind of guidance, which she gives in the notorious, unhelpful way of Zen. Mike gets go-along-to-get-along advice from an older priest, Father Antonelli (Bob Clendenin), endures the Cardinal’s quirky, awkward assistant, Keenen (Michael Sturgis in a hilarious comic performance), and finally confronts the target of his book, the smooth talking Father White (Jesse Bush).
Yusuf Toropov has crafted an extraordinary script that demands much from the performers and keen attention from the audience. An Undivided Heart is not a sit-back-and-enjoy-the-show kind of play. Think Shakespeare or O’Neill. There is so much to get. Director Chris Fields keeps the action and emotions sharp and penetrating. And the creative staff in addition to the aforementioned Amanda Knehans—lighting designer Rose Malone, sound designer Cricket S. Myers, costume designer Dianne K. Graebner and graphic designer Christopher Komuro—are ace. And Venice Yue Yang skillfully manages the stage.
An Undivided Heart, a co-production of The Echo Theater Company and Circle X Theatre Co., continues its run though April 22 at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue in Los Angeles.