Just before the lights came up for the curtain call of the performance I attended of Passage Theater’s production of William Mastrosimone’s "A Stone Carver," I could hear people around me sniffling. The pollen count was high that day, but I’m pretty sure that a sudden onset of allergies was not the cause of these sniffles; people were crying.

I don’t usually write about the audience’s response when I’m reviewing a show, but for this play – the final production in Passage’s 20th anniversary season – the audience response encapsulates what worked about the production: it had soul.

Even when a show is technically well-crafted, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be moving or entertaining. I experienced this recently when I went (not wearing my reviewer’s hat) to see a play that had been lauded by fellow critics and friends; the show was beautiful to look at, and it offered an interesting new take on a classic play, but my friend and I both agreed at intermission that there was not enough soul to really grab hold of us and make us go back to our seats for the second act.

In spite of some flaws – which I believe lie primarily with the script – "A Stone Carver" has plenty of soul, and that, I suspect, is what the audience was responding to at the Friday night preview performance I attended. And the soul of Passage’s production is actor Dan Lauria.

Lauria is known best for his role as the gruff but lovable father on TV’s "The Wonder Years," but he has also spent years on the stage, and he has used his celebrity to champion and support professional regional theaters – having graced the stage in New Jersey several times, including George Street Playhouse’s productions this season of the raucous "Inspecting Carol" and the powerful and disturbing "The Pillowman."

"A Stone Carver" is, in essence, a one man show with two supporting performers. Lauria’s Agostino Malatesta is an Italian immigrant, the seventh generation in his family to be a stone carver. His profession is sacred to him, as are most of his old school beliefs. But in spite of his commitment to his craft, Agostino’s way of life is being wiped away, literally and figuratively. And his son, Raff, is the messenger of the bad news.

As the play opens, Raff (short for Rafael) is coming to see his father – after several years of inattention – in an effort to convince him to leave his home cum carving studio to make way for "progress," thanks to the state’s eminent domain over the property, on which it plans to build a freeway off-ramp. Agostino is the last hold-out in his unidentified New Jersey neighborhood; bulldozers are closing in. Raff’s coming to try to talk some "sense" into his father, who is in danger of being dragged out in handcuffs; after numerous notices from the town council alerting him that his house will be destroyed to make way for the ramp, and if Agostino does not leave on his own, the police will be called in. But Agostino is not budging. He has lived in this stone house that he built with his own two hands most of his adult life. It is the house he shared with his late wife – the woman whose face he carves on all the stone angels he has created for the town churches, and on the one that he is nearing completion on in the beat-up kitchen. He has armed himself with a gun, a bit of food, and he is digging in for a fight.

And it seems the fight will be with Raff. Because Raff (Jim Iorio) is not just the messenger of the bad news, he’s an up-and-coming member of the city council, and, as his fiance, Janice (Elizabeth Rossa), informs Agostino proudly, Raff is about to run for mayor in the next election. "And he’s going to win," she says. Convincing his father to walk away from his home now would put Raff in an even better position with his fellow politicians, and he is determined to do it even if it means facing the old man and the demons that lurk between them.

Unfortunately, there is little about Iorio’s performance that makes it seem like this man is a true political up-and-comer. Beginning the play with a chip on his shoulder – and ending with the very same chip, just ground down slightly – he doesn’t exhibit the charm or passion that would make Raff the kind of man who would win votes. And the connection with his fiance is weak.

As Raff’s fiance, Janice, Elizabeth Rossa gave a more convincing performance. As the fish out of water in this very Italian home with a lot of unresolved issues, she wades cautiously and gains confidence as she begins to see a way through the minefield that the Malatesta men have made of their relationship.

Set in the 1970s, the timeframe in which Mastrosimone wrote the play, the set boasts kitchen appliances with a very Brady color scheme, and Gail Cooper-Hecht’s costumes have a decidedly ’70s look to them (a powder blue, three-piece "leisure suit" on Janice, and on Raff a three-piece suit with a patterned wide tie that clashes with his striped shirt). As the press materials from the theater say: this play "could be ripped from today’s headlines of eminent domain and urban redevelopment." Agostino’s story could be happening today, so why keep the play set in the ’70s?

And while William Mastrosimone is a venerated playwright, the script of "A Stone Carver" is a bit formulaic: curmudgeonly father and estranged son clash over big issues and a complicated history with a lot at stake. And we see the conflicts and plot turns coming a mile away. Will Agostino learn of his son’s ulterior motives for getting him to leave his home? Will they come to blows? Will Raff and Janice start out on the same "side" and wind up clashing over how to handle things? When those little glasses of wine that Agostino pours for Janice in a symbolic gesture of his disapproval get filled higher and higher (getting her tipsier and tipsier), will he warm to her and she to him? Will there be a detente between the Malatesta men?

Yes, yes, yes, yes, and you betcha, yes.

And yet, with Dan Lauria as Agostino, and with Passage Theater’s intimate setting, this play comes alive and rises above any weaknesses in the script. As Lauria plays him, patriarch Agostino is a tragic and soulful character with a story worth witnessing. How can you not giggle along with Agostino when he devilishly catches Janice in one of many (rather nasty) practical jokes in an effort to goad her? His amusement in his own ability to catch the buttoned up Janice off-guard, and then to slowly embrace her because of how she handles the "jokes" (and him) is enough to have us forgive him his nastier inclinations. And how can you not get choked up when, in his fractured English, Agostino defends his reason for fighting to save this home: "Your mother is in this house, her hand touch this switch, her feet touch these stairs." This is his home with a capital H, he tells his son – he built it with sweat, craftsmanship, and love. It is not simply a house.

Lauria rules the stage the entire time he is on it – all but about two minutes of the hour and a half play that has no intermission. When you learn that he suffered from a back injury during (an enflamed nerve around a disc) the third week of the rehearsal process, it’s all the more reason to admire the actor’s stamina in this demanding role.

`The collapse occurred at the beginning of the third week of rehearsal," producing artistic director June Ballinger wrote me via E-mail of Lauria’s injury. Once it was clear that the injury was going to have him out of commission for a while, the (very small) staff of Passage Theater worked overtime doing damage control – getting an extension on their Equity contracts (the actors union) and making adjustments to the marketing and PR campaigns. They called patrons and they asked the press to hold off on running feature stories.

Ballinger says that the generosity and understanding of her staff and creative team made all the difference in keeping things going in spite of the postponement. "We lost some large group sales," says Ballinger, "some feature stories were killed, and there was some patron confusion." But, she says, "these are always risks in professional theater. Regional theaters rarely, if ever, have understudies. This kind of thing can happen any time, anywhere." The time away didn’t really hold them back, she says. Once Lauria was up and around again "we just moved forward," she said. And how did Lauria manage during all of this? "You have to make Dan take a break! He is indefatigable."

And with a show that rests almost entirely on his shoulders, it’s a good thing that he is.

"A Stone Carver," through Sunday, June 18, Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton. Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 & 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m. $25. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org.

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