Napoli, Brooklyn by Meghan Kennedy, premiering at Long Wharf Theatre, takes us into the city’s Park Slope neighborhood in 1960 when it was filled with immigrants and major social changes were on the horizon, from civil rights to women’s rights, that would challenge the traditional American values of the previous generation.
But what makes Kennedy’s play, insightfully directed by Long Wharf’s artistic director Gordon Edelstein, work so beautifully on so many levels isn’t so much the bigger historical context of the work, or the timely social message being conveyed, as interesting as it is, but the intimate, fleshed-out portrait of one Italian immigrant couple, Luda and Nic Muscolino, and their three American-born daughters. It is their personal story, filled with humor and heartbreak, that makes this production both unique and universal.
The play opens with Luda, performed by Alyssa Breshnahan, talking to an onion and to the audience as if we were right there with her in her kitchen, smelling her sauce simmering on the stove.
Luda tells us that she isn’t religious, but when she’s in the kitchen cooking she’s holy because she’s making magic. And this sets the tone for the rest of the two-hour, two-act play. Breshnahan is lovely and real as the conflicted mother torn between her domineering husband and her beloved daughters, who finds the only control she has and joy she feels is in her ability to nurture others and herself through food.
Jason Kolotouros plays Nic, an unlikable character with few redeeming characteristics. Nic is not living the American Dream, in fact, he feels invisible and miserable as an immigrant to the U.S. He cheats on Luda, he belittles and berates his daughters, and makes it clear he wishes he had sons.
When a plane crashes into their neighborhood (true story) wreaking death and destruction, and Nic survives, we want to believe he’s found redemption, but we know it’s too easy. Kolotouros does well conveying the scary unpredictability of his narcissistic character, although his Italian accent is a little off and can be distracting.
The three sisters, played by three talented young actresses have very distinct personalities, but the common theme between them is their yearning to find their voices, to love and be loved, and to protect each other from their father.
Vita, played with grit and determination by Carolyn Braver, is pretty, well read, and confrontational. She questions authority, religion, and gender roles, and is sent to a convent after a particularly nasty argument with her father, where, ironically, she quotes Camus rather than the Bible.
“I need a relationship with a man that allows me to be gorgeous and smart and fun,” she says.
Francesca, the youngest, is delightfully portrayed by East Haven native Jordyn DiNatale. A dreamer and outcast, she is unapologetically in love with her school friend, Connie, played by Ryann Shane, a devout Catholic who sometimes feels guilty about her sexuality. The two make naïve plans to run away to progressive-thinking Paris where they believe they will find acceptance and happiness.
Tina, the oldest and most responsible—and her father’s favorite—was forced to drop out of school to work in a factory. Christina Pumariega captures her character’s insecurities and inherent kindness. Classic stereotypes are broken when she makes her first African American friend in coworker Celia (Shrine Babb). Celia is always reading and attends college at night. She is also happily married. In her innocent way, Tina asks Celia, “What’s it like being loved?” Celia replies, “It’s peace.”
Speaking of stereotypes, Graham Winton sensitively portrays Albert Duffy, the widowed Irish butcher (Connie’s father), who thankfully is not the predictable Irish drunk. Nic is the one with the drinking problem—too much red wine with dinner. Honorable and sincere, Albert is in love with Luda, who is not ready or able to leave her destructive marriage.
The plane crash is a pivotal moment in the play, pulled off with amazing special effects on the Long Wharf stage. Without disclosing too much, the crash becomes the impetus for all the female characters to discover their voices, and to find freedom.
Eugene Lee’s wonderful wall-less set, coupled with Ben Stanton’s focused lighting, moves the action from kitchen to dining room to bedroom—where the sisters find respite cuddling up together in bed—and out into the larger world represented by a giant backdrop of the Brooklyn neighborhood with apartment windows that magically light up at night.
Nice touches are left to the imagination, like Luda banging on a non-existent ceiling with her broom when her neighbors get noisy—and a swing dropping down to indicate that Francesca and Connie are in the schoolyard.
Napoli, Brooklyn is at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, through Sunday, March 12. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 203-787-4282 or online at www.longwharf.org.