Reality is not simply there, it must be searched and won. -- Paul Celan
I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant. -- Martin Luther King, Jr.
Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood. -- Gabriel Garcia Marquez
As I was thinking over what I admired about "100 Saints You Should Know," Kate Fodor's quietly excellent new play at Playwrights Horizons, the first quotation here sprang into my head. In searching my quote file for the exact wording and the attribution, I found the second quotation, which is relevant by virtue of its irrelevance to the question the play asks: why bad things happen and how to go on. And the third quote, like the first, underlines Ms. Fodor's and the cast's accomplishments: to have constructed a story and characters so genuine they seem to be real -- a house you can walk through and breathe in. The characters are five:
- Theresa, a cleaner, never married
- Matthew, one of her employers, a Catholic priest
- Abby, Theresa's hellion of a teenage daughter
- Colleen, Matthew's widowed Irish mother
- Garrett, a teenage delivery boy
The play is a simple chain of conversations over the course of one night: between Theresa and Matthew in his rectory, just before his departure on a forced leave of absence (for possession of pictures of adult male nudes); Theresa and Abby in the girl's bedroom; Matthew and Colleen as they play Scrabble in her living room, she not knowing his "vacation" is mandatory; Matthew and Garrett just outside Colleen's house; Theresa, Matthew, and Colleen in the living room, after Theresa brings Matthew something he left in the rectory; Garrett and Abby as they wait outside for the adults. Then tragedy strikes -- an accident, inexplicable -- and the players are juggled round again, still always in domestic settings, rarely more than two of them onstage at a time.There is no showiness to the play; there are no grand plots or grandiose desires. It is rather a story of people confused by their desires, for others, for goodness, or for God. They cannot escape the people they are, which leads to their lives of quiet desperation, and the situation that follows from those lives has even less rational explanation: There is neither good nor evil here (pace Dr. King), only the search for meaning in meaninglessness. But the characters' struggle to search and win a greater reality -- the possibility of redemption -- combined with their utter recognizability as people give them both dignity and poignancy.
In keeping with the spirit of the play, the performances feel restrained, letting the characters' pain carry the drama rather than overemphasizing it in the acting. (The exception was Zoe Kazan as Abby, but as Abby is a histrionic teenager, that may well have been intentional.) The scenic design by Rachel Hauck and costume design by Mimi O'Donnell is likewise elegant and in service to Ms. Fodor's themes. This is a wise and thoughtful play worthy of your time -- a marvelous portrayal of the characters' reality, and an enrichment of our own.