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'100 Saints You Should Know' Is Worth Getting To Know

Brendan Farrell and Kate Huffman in "100 Saints You Should Know." Photo - Sven Ellirand.
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It's somewhat of a novelty these days to see a Catholic priest in a modern play that isn’t automatically presented as a child molester. In older works, the clergy were perhaps treated too reverentially--genial, saintly figures in sweaters, invariably from Ireland. One of the great virtues of Kate Fodor’s 100 Saints You Should Know is that she portrays a priest (and all of her other characters) as a fallible human being, not some iconic figure to be blessed or damned by rote. The current west coast premiere by the Elephant Theatre Company takes Fodor’s absorbing moral drama and fills it with subtle and moving performances that gradually combine toward a powerful catharsis.

Matthew (Brendan Farrell) has suddenly returned to his mother Colleen’s (Pamela Roylance) home to take a vacation from the parish where he works as a priest. One evening Theresa (Cheryl Huggins), who cleans the rectory of Matthew’s church as a part-time job, shows up purportedly to return a book he left behind, but in fact she hopes he can help her with questions about her life. Meanwhile, her rebellious teenage daughter Abby (Kate Huffman), waiting outside the house for her mother, meets the well-meaning if unworldly delivery boy Garrett (Marco Naggar) and gets drunk with him. The unexpected results of these meetings and reunions threaten to damage these relationships yet ultimately serve to heal them, with one major exception.

The surprise of Farrell’s performance is that in Act 1 Matthew is borderline rude or dismissive to everyone, particularly his puzzled mother, while in Act 2 he demonstrates that he is a genuinely good priest, and Farrell makes this combination work brilliantly, humanizing the troubled character. Roylance is similarly strong as the cheerfully guilt-tripping Colleen, whose kindness vanishes with shocking speed when her vision of her perfect priest son is tarnished. Naggar takes what could easily be an over-the-top role and makes Garrett vividly real and complex in an accomplished turn.

Most of the characters in this play are looking for something they don’t have in their lives, particularly Theresa, who wants to salvage a life that she feels hasn’t added up to much. Huggins’ portrayal is enormously sympathetic, a woman who has been beaten down but hasn’t given up. Her conversation with Matthew, desperately seeking guidance, is an assured and affecting piece of work. Finally, Huffman is darkly hilarious as Abby, a bundle of unfocused frustration and aggression looking for absolutely any target at all.

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Lindsay Allbaugh’s direction manages to hit every emotional beat of the play effectively and maintains pacing that feels neither rushed nor laggard, just right. Initially, Fodor’s story seems small and perhaps familiar, but it soon reveals itself to be going after bigger game, from the relationships between mothers and children to the eternal need to connect to the existential mysteries of finding one’s proper place in the world. It’s an impressive and emotionally moving play. Tech credits are good, except Jeffery Eisenmann’s odd set, which features various tree branches growing through a series of bookshelves to no discernible purpose.

100 Saints You Should Know is playing through June 26 at The Elephant Space. Tickets are available online or via phone at (877) 369-9112. Tickets are $20.