Life comes loaded with admonition. We should go to church. We should eat our veggies. We should not smoke. We should sit up tall. We should act our age.

Last night’s Southeastern-premiere preview performance of 100 Saints You Should Know examines the “ought” theme, painfully cutting across generations, genders, and other genres of the human experience.
The current production at the Actor’s Express Theatre Company in West Midtown highlights the thespic prowess of Carolyn Cook in the lead role of Theresa, a youngish woman fighting motherhood while cleaning toilets for a living. Her personal battle mirrors a much more private struggle exhibited by Doyle Reynolds in his priestly performance as Father Matthew. After his parish seeks to part ways with its shepherd, Matthew flees to his only refuge, his Irish-American mother Colleen, played by a convincing Sheila Allen on this particular date of St. Patrick’s Day-plus-one.
Weighty struggles ensue with equally powerful performances by Rachel DeJulio as Theresa’s teen-angst’d daughter Abby and Barrett Doyle as the grocer’s similarly troubled, though maturing, son Garrett.

The cigarette smoke on-stage mimics incense at moments, invoking the Holy Spirit to inspire and enlighten the stage’s troubled souls seeking sainthood because of, in spite of, oblivious to their typically American life experiences. The tobacco scent reaches into the lower audience, and at least one of its members felt caught in its allure. (Banning smoking from stages altogether may be too politically correct, even for this wide-minded reviewer.)

Maturity reigns, although not all that convincingly, in the post-intermission scenes, to the point Theresa seems to be an altogether different incarnation of her earlier self. This may not be the actor’s fault, but the playwright’s challenge. Perhaps the impetus driving Theresa’s transformation could have been explored differently.

Not long after saying to the priest, “The church has a lot of nice words, doesn’t it?,” the troubled mother Theresa grows a visible, maternal instinct. We learn her parents were focused logisticians, so no wonder their offspring rebelled against their absolute rules of a rational life. Theresa now gives us an agreeable self-assessment of “I wound up with this little scrap of a life.” The chronically nervous priest, Matthew, utters the great line of “Thoughts can be wrong,” and in those four words, we hear the questioning echo of the lifelong struggle of the logisticians’ daughter.

Equally potent is the dialogue between Father Matthew and his mother Colleen. “What should I love you for?” the son asks her before responding for her: “Nothin’, Ma. Nothin’.” The double meaning of the exchange takes time to sink in, not just for Colleen, if it ever even does for her or us.

Toward the very end of the play, Matthew and Colleen kneel in her living room as devout Catholics to offer a final prayer for a recently departed neighbor. Mother Colleen’s intercessory expression, not just for the lone deceased but for her lonely son, is a show-stopper of emotion.

At least in this Atlanta performance, the set design highlights the foundations of the two central homes to emphasize the common search for truth, be it via orthodoxy or rebellion. The rawness of emotion exhibited in the dueling abodes ultimately remains balanced, without judgment or preference for which end of the see-saw carries the greater weight of truth.

While complex answers to simple theological questions fill the stage throughout the two-hour show, it is the audience who is left to decide who their saints should be. Solidly evoking that sentiment, even Father Matthew, trained at Harvard, can answer the question “Is the cafeteria still open?” only with a truthful “I don’t know.” After all, it is largely up to us to answer our own questions, and life is sweeter, though not necessarily easier, for that reason.

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100 Saints You Should Know, written by Kate Fodor, had its world premiere Off-Broadway in New York City a mere three years ago. The play opens March 21 and runs through April 17 at the Actor’s Express Theatre Company in Atlanta’s King Plow Arts Center, West Midtown. Susan Reid directs the local production. Check out www.actorsexpress.com for more information.

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