Clive Murdoch (Ian Bedford) appears a little tentative as he enters the modest rural home in Jim Thorpe, the small town in rural Pennsylvania where he spent his youth. Standing agape and barely able to accept the reality of his return, the tall, strapping man in his mid 30s has just been released from prison. There he spent 17 years for a drunk-driving accident that resulted in the deaths of his best friend and the two adults in the car they hit.
As his parents are no longer living, Clive expects to be quite alone readjusting here, except perhaps for the neighborly support and visits of middle-aged Joanie Gallagher (Jo Twiss), who has accompanied Clive home. Joanie — who with her husband own a local pub and are long time friends of the Murdochs — is more than a merely good soul who has kept watch on the long empty house and seen to all the necessary updates to make it livable for Clive. Nervously cheerful, her generosity toward Clive is necessitated as it turns out that the former tragedy has apparently also made Clive suicidal.
Their inherently problematic relationship, as well as Clive getting acclimated in a town where he no longer knows anyone, would seem to be almost enough of a catalyst for dramatic surprise or two in Jessica Bedford’s play — “Blessed Are” — now having its world premiere at Trenton’s Passage Theater Company.
But things become a bit more incredulously complex, if also inevitably more perplexing, when Miranda Walters (Kim Carson), an attractive woman in her late 20s, shows up quite unexpectedly at the house and asks the reluctant Clive let her in. Before Clive can say thanks but no thanks to her persistence, she is in his home and forcing more than a welcoming gesture on the bewildered Clive. An English teacher, Miranda literally invades Clive’s privacy by insisting on doing his shopping, becoming his friend, and more.
While Joanie’s motives are conceivably based on her need to fully and finally become reconciled with what happened 17 years ago, she also wants to exercise — as well as embrace — her ability to forgive. Miranda, however, appears to be on a carefully programmed mission that is less openly revealed, one that increasingly suggests to us, if not to the unsuspecting Clive, a more pathologically rooted need.
Although Clive is inclined to literally bang his head against the wall to find relief from his memories, he also finds solace during the day building model airplanes, or as Joanie calls it “aviation for elves.” While Miranda’s unrelentingly aggressive steps to seduce the vulnerable Clive with her charms would make most men immediately suspicious of a set-up or something worse, Clive allows himself to be unwittingly rushed into an affair (“I’m trying to feel human again”) that has taken him by surprise.
We may deduce that he hasn’t had a relationship with a woman in 17 years, so why should he question or quibble about Miranda’s physically aggressive attention? Although the possibility does arise, but is quickly dismissed, that he could be a victim of one of those women who seek out prisoners as romantic objects, Clive is understandably happy for the dinners they prepare together, the conversations they share, as well as their time (unseen) in his bed.
Suspicious that Clive is having a relationship with a woman, but unaware of whom it may be, Joanie is shocked when the inevitable happens. The plot progresses with small talk in brief encounters between Clive and Joanie, Clive and Miranda, and finally Miranda and Joanie each revealing bits and pieces of their interconnected lives.
This leads to a conclusion that is, however, more implausible than shocking. Despite this and thanks to the playwright’s gift for not letting the gab give away too much too soon, the three fine actors — under the attentive direction of Adam Immerwahr — succeed admirably in holding our attention. This is no small feat as we have to deal with some incredible contrivances along the way in our wait for the big confrontational blow-up and its ordained revelation.
Bedford is convincing as the moody but gradually-on-the-mend Clive who could not have been prepared or ever predicted what returning to his home in the old neighborhood would mean. Miranda may be the play’s most confounding and irrationally devised character, but Carson runs effectively with its inconsistencies. Joanie is the play’s center of gravity, and I liked the way she tempered Joanie’s need to be ebulliently cheerful with her ability to be fearlessly realistic when it becomes necessary.
Designer Jeffrey Van Velsor’s setting nicely evokes the kitchen and simply furnished living room of a lower middle class Catholic family, its religious symbols and bric-a-brac as its defining decor. The title of the play is a biblical reference of which Joanie personalizes to Clive as, “Blessed are they who dare to live and breathe, my dear darling boy. Blessed are they.”
The Passage Theater Company developed this play by Bedford — a Philadelphia-based actor, writer, director, and teacher — in its program devoted to developing new work toward full production. Although there are a few gaps in credibility, there is no denying that this play commendably considers some of the ways and means that people use to find inner peace and emotional closure.
Blessed Are, Passage Theater Company, Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton. Thursdays through Sundays to November 4. $28 to $33. For more information visit passagetheatre.org.