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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