TAKING TURNS Children and their Innocence.
The horrors of violence often assault us without sense or warning. In the thick of them, how can we live and still know happiness? In the immediate aftermath of the Newtown shooting, this is the question that drove Snowlion Repertory Company as it considered plays for its spring production. Snowlion exclusively produces works with "cultural, ethical, and spiritual value," and found both complexity and life-affirmation in Vincent Sessa's A Child's Guide to Innocence. In this sensitive family drama, directed by Al D'Andrea at the University of New England's Ludcke Auditorium, Sessel lovingly follows three generations of Italian-American women, and their attempts to live joyfully in full presence of death.
A Child's Guide to Innocence begins in 1944 in Brooklyn, where three sisters Francie (Laura Houk), Marion (Kathryn Perry), and Catherine (Elizabeth Lardie) have been awaiting their brother's return from the war, with increasing dread. But Francie is also in love, and her dreams of domesticity pose a giddy — and to her sisters, sometimes, even exasperating — counterpoint to the sisters' fears. She and her sisters gossip, spar, and commune entertainingly with each other over forbidden lipstick, career ambitions, and sexual knowledge, as well as over the all-encompassing war. Over the next two scenes of the play, we watch Francie age, as Perry and Lardie portray next her daughters and then, finally, her granddaughters. The arc of the story, at once epic in its sweep and intimate in its particulars, shows the women having lively, deep arguments, laying bare their own complicated relationships, and debating whether and how each believes in god, war, and love.
The bonds and impasses of these women are wonderfully subtle, with great variation in range and tone, and their fraught familial dynamics are utterly convincing: They criticize each other's clothes, then confide a fear; bait then cheer each other; roll eyes then lay heads on shoulders. And in a recent rehearsal, the three actresses of Child's Guide inhabited these richly textured characters with grace, wit, and feeling, navigating the sisters' leaps between irritation and tenderness with an authenticity that will ring true to anyone with a close family. Perry and Lardie are also deft in their portrayals of the three different generations of women; they manage to make each woman both her own person and a recognizable legacy of their elders. And Houk does a lovely job of aging Francie, deepening the woman's complexities in even her affecting, often disarming gaze.
Sessel's rich, thoughtful script gives these actresses much to work with. And there are lovely quotidian details that recur throughout the play — the smell of celery on wool, a baseball card, a missing prism in one of the household's hurricane lamps. Heated debates about god, culture, politics, and innocence manifest in tangible domestic conflicts, such as when Joan doesn't want her six-year-old exposed to the horrors of Anne Frank, and the big issues are tempered with banter about dancehalls and even the movie Jaws. As Francie ages, her emotions come blazing to the surface in the smallest household acts — forgetting salt in the pound cake, remembering her father's hand on the kitchen table.