Someone stands in front of you with a cat in one hand and a knife in the other, threatening to kill it. What do you say to save the cat? In An Undivided Heart, a co-production of Echo Theater Company and Circle X Theatre Company that opened this past weekend at the Atwater Village Theatre, this is but one puzzle its complicated characters must attempt to solve. Based on true events with an added layer of spiritual mystery, it explores how people learn to live with trauma, and what happens when the right thing to do and the easy thing to do are not in alignment.
Written by Yusuf Toropov, An Undivided Heart is set in 1992 Massachusetts in the midst of two scandals—the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal and the Woburn, Massachusetts toxic drinking water scandal. The former is well-known and has been depicted in other media including the 2015 Best Picture winning movie Spotlight. The latter is perhaps less common knowledge, although it was one of the first high-profile lawsuits involving pollution by a major corporation and was the subject of the book and film A Civil Action. At the center of the play’s story are two brothers who, through a series of unexpected events, become embroiled in both scandals.
Mike (Matthew Gallenstein) is a young priest and himself a survivor of abuse within the church at a young age. He has written a very honest book he plans to publish, but the church objects due to the accusations found within it. Meanwhile, Mike’s brother, Max (Tim Wright), has a chance encounter with a pregnant woman, Lynne (Alana Dietze), whose life has been gravely affected by the polluted water in her town. Mike is also having visions he is struggling to make sense of, visions of a young black girl (Ann’Jewel Lee) who speaks in riddles and seems to be urging him towards some deep realization. Max, on the other hand, is exploring his spirituality by meeting with Janice (Jennifer A. Skinner), a zen priest who speaks in her own brand of riddles. All of these characters, as well as Lynne’s ailing mother, Ruth (Sigute Miller), find themselves on a collision course when an opportunity to unmask the abuse committed by a particular priest surfaces. Mike is forced to decide if he is ready to speak out despite pressure from the church to do otherwise, facing the personal demons of his own trauma in the process.
Directed by Chris Fields, the action unfolds on an interesting, red-tinted set (Amanda Knehans) with various haphazard beams stemming down from the ceiling, which I interpreted to resemble the titular heart. Humor is used very smartly throughout, providing nice contrast to the somber subject matter. A highlight is a tongue-in-cheek homily given by the eccentric Father Keenan (Michael Sturgis), poking fun at the paint-by-numbers nature of most sermons. It will ring incredibly true for anyone who has ever attended a Catholic mass, and had the opening weekend audience in stitches.
By the end Mike does, in fact, figure out how to save the cat. One must assume this is also meant as a nod to the popular writing phrase “save the cat,” based on the idea that the hero or heroine of a work of fiction should do something nice (like saving a cat) early on in the story in order to make the audience like them. The fact that it takes Mike until the end of the play to figure it out speaks to what a morally complicated story this is, and just how much is at stake for all of its characters. The performances are strong all around, although scenes between Dietze and Miller as they struggle to cope with losses and prepare for the seeming inevitability of more particularly shine. Dietze and Wright also develop an unexpected and lovely dynamic, their characters forever bonded over the tragedy that occurs the night they first meet.
To fully embrace this play would be to fully accept the unexplainable. Not everything here has a rational explanation, something the text draws attention to and even jokes about. One could also point to many of the connections between the characters as too coincidental, while others would argue fate caused their paths to cross. What is always nice about such stories is they are open to interpretation—did Mike truly dream of a little girl who guided him on his path, or did he know the path all along and need to fabricate an outside force to gain clarity? Religion is a polarizing subject and a difficult one to explore in this context, but by presenting more than one take on spirituality this story avoids stereotypes and generalizations. While I was on board with nearly all of the more unbelievable moments, the final scene was a bridge too far for me, toeing over the line between poignancy and heavy-handedness. Overall, An Undivided Heart is a smart, complex, emotional exploration of human trauma, responsibility, and spirituality that remains engaging throughout.
An Undivided Heart runs at the Atwater Village Theatre through April 22nd. Performances are Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 4pm. The running time is two hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission. Please note the show is partially double cast, and not all performers mentioned in this review will perform on all dates. A cast schedule can be found here. Tickets start at $34 and can be purchased here.