The best writing usually occurs when the writer connects or strikes a chord with his or her audience. In the “Brightness of Heaven,” author, and now playwright Laura Pedersen, does just that. Pederson allows us a glimpse into the lives of a very strict Irish Catholic family whose matriarch’s domineering and self-righteous persona is only a match for the Martha Stewarts or the Bree Hodges of this world.
Witty and poignant, the story centers around the Kilgannon family; the impossible expectations imposed on them by their God-fearing mother Joyce, and the effect it has on them.
Trapped in a life of limited choices, secrets and lies, the Kilgannon family is about to be blown apart. A domineering and self-righteous mother controls everyone in the family and does so using guilt and obligation as weapons against them. An unbearable life is the result of all the religious rules and doctrine forced upon them, and getting to heaven no longer seems so appealing.
In the Kilgannon family, the kids have learned three basic truths: 1- If you do not live a life according to the church, you will be judged for it and probably go straight to hell, 2- It is always important to appear good and virtuous to others 3- If you do not follow the first two beliefs, you will be consumed with guilt, as you should be.
As the play begins, Joyce and her sister-in-law Mary, get things ready for a surprise birthday celebration for her husband, Edwin. A home economics teacher at a Catholic school, Joyce cringes at the very thought of any mother using store bought cake mix and frosting, as if making absolutely everything from scratch makes you a better person. Perhaps someone should have informed her, this is not 1950, (although in this play, it is 1974). Working mothers everywhere, beware!
Edwin, Joyce’s husband, is a jovial fellow, and works as the music teacher at the same Catholic school as his wife. He lives for the musical theater productions he directs at the school. His many outbursts of song during the evening only confirm that.
In this household, Joyce wears the pants in the family and enforces the rules as to how their children should live their lives and make decisions, as Edwin passively stands by. When his daughter asks him why he never speaks up to his wife, he jokingly answers, “Haven’t you noticed in the Bible, Mary’s husband doesn’t have a speaking part?” A gentle-hearted soul, Edwin uses his humor during uncomfortable moments to ease tensions between family members.
As the evening begins, we begin to meet each of the three Kilgannon children.
Kathleen, the youngest, is the most rebellious, and a modern woman of today. She is independent and recently got promoted at the bank where she works. Although she is strong-willed like her mother, she has a very different belief system. Kathleen withholds a lot of secrets from her mother, but she can only do that for so long.
Dennis is the dutiful and responsible brother who tends to his parents often. Married and with a kid of his own, he works as a teacher as well, but at a public school in order to support his family. It is obvious Joyce is disappointed by this decision as she points out that Dennis should not focus on the money, but on the service to others. Dennis longs for the approval and acceptance of his mother, and to be deemed the favorite in the family, a position, which as his sister points out, is already held by his older brother Brendan.
Brendan, the oldest of the three, is an unsuccessful actor who seems to be living out his father’s long lost dreams of the stage, not his own. Completely drunk, yet keenly aware of what’s happening around him, Brendan sits by quietly and accepts his defeat.
Dinner is ready and the conversation at this table is about to get ugly as some of the younger family members have been pushed to their limit and can no longer bear the “prison” in which they live in. The rules of their parents and the church are suffocating them. Now, it is time for them to finally breathe.
The unraveling of secrets is underway and continues throughout the night, and while most meekly accept the circumstances in which they live, others simply can not, and make the ultimate decision to leave the family completely. By the end of the evening, the Kilgannon family will never be quite the same.
The most outstanding performance of the evening goes to Annie Briggs, whose portrayal of Kathleen is both powerful and gutsy.
“The Brightness of Heaven” is a fantastic piece of work by Laura Pedersen. The youngest columnist to write for the New York Times, her writing has earned her critical acclaim and various awards. A look at some of her other work may interest readers. The Fall Play Festival continues at the Manhattan Repertory Theatre throughout December 15th.