Unexpressed grief is the powerful unseen force behind all the characters in Elaine Smith’s play Angels and Ministers of Grace, premiering at New Jersey Repertory Company, a marvelous small theater in Long Branch, NJ dedicated to nurturing and producing new work.
Three middle-aged siblings reside on the family farm in rural Florida, a setting evoked effectively by scenic designer Jessica Parks; the kitchen, frozen in time with its icebox, 1930’s stove and flapping screen door, is the centerpiece for the unfolding drama. Miriam (played with honest conviction by Dana Benningfield) and her older sister Arletta (Maureen Silliman) are keepers of the house now that their mother has died. Their brother, Jimmy Ray (David Van Pelt), lives in a cottage on the property. Eccentricities abound as unresolved grief makes these characters do crazy things in order to keep the floodgates closed against pain. (The only being who actually gives voice to their pain is a mother cow whose calf has been taken away: her plaintive bawling from offstage regularly interrupts the play’s action.) Arletta, who hasn’t left the house since her mother’s death, hears voices that warn of danger. Her antidote is to create multitudes of angels in various shapes and sizes, and the house is strewn with faceless angels standing guard, hovering over chairs and hanging from the ceiling, brandishing antlers, swords and thorns. Miriam is the practical one, the glue holding the family together (if it wasn’t for her, Arletta would have “37 cats and a forest of angels” ruling the house), though her coping mechanisms are failing as is her health.
Veteran actress Maureen Silliman, in a fragile and beautiful performance, gives Arletta just the right balance of loopy and big sister caretaker. Van Pelt, perfectly cast as Jimmy Ray, shows us a goofy little boy in a grown man’s body desperate to be seen and heard; he expertly reveals Jimmy Ray’s pain at being labeled stupid and slow his entire life. Franklin, Miriam’s ex-husband is a man who’s tried to move on, but is still a little bit in love, and James Earley effectively embodies Franklin's stoicism, awkwardness and the frustration that comes from trying to make things better. Ms. Benningfield as Miriam delivers a taut, on the verge of snapping performance culminating in a powerful final scene.
Lovingly shaping many small moments of anguish, director Marc Geller tells the story with warmth and clarity. Ms. Smith’s writing captures the cadences of backwoods Florida folk in this well-crafted play. She understands the importance of the spaces between the words and creates empathetic characters that audiences recognize and root for. In a second act scene, her dialogue between Miriam and ex-husband Franklin is heartbreakingly nuanced as they struggle to connect, both haunted by the death of their daughter. Unexpressed grief pulses underneath, but so does love.
Performances of Angels and Ministers of Grace continue at the New Jersey Repertory Company through November 23. The cast includes Dana Benningfield, James Earley, Maureen Silliman, and David Van Pelt and is directed by Marc Geller. The production team includes: Jessica Parks (Set Design & Props), Jill Nagle (Lighting Design), Merek Royce Press (Sound Design), Patricia E. Doherty (Costume Design), Michael Carroll (Technical Director), and Jennifer Tardibuono (Stage Manager). For more information and tickets visit https://www.njrep.org/
Through November 23 at New Jersey Repertory Company.