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Wednesday, February 1,2012

Stunning 'Stone'

Purple Rose Theatre drama is a solid triumph

by Tom Helma

It takes a singer with a great voice to bring out the complexities of a well-composed opera. Likewise, it takes an actor with great range to project the nuances of a well-written script. Behold the pairing in “A Stone Carver,” by epic-writer William Mastrosimone, which demonstrates the talents of Purple Rose Theater’s artistic director, Guy Sanville. It’s a marriage of mind and heart made in, if not heaven, at least close to Sicily.

“A Stone Carver” is a word-opera with soaring heights of spirited and passionate conflicts between aging first generation Sicilian-American sculptor Agostino Malatesta (Sanville), a bit beyond his prime years, and his only son, Raff (Matthew Davis), who has assimilated to appear like the coolest of cucumbers. Add to the mix, Raff’s fiancée, Janice (Charlyn Swarthout), and this Italianate salad gets truly tossed. 

Agostino is old-school, a man of many words — most of them bilingual curses. He is intense, scary to Janice at first, rude, crude, obnoxious and angry.

Did I say angry? “He’s not angry, he’s him,” Raff explains to Janice. The antagonism between father and son has been stewing and brewing for a long time, and now Raff (short for Raphael) is running for mayor.

Meanwhile, Agostino refuses to leave his house, which is scheduled for demolition: A proposed expressway offramp is supposed to run right through his small piece of property. 

Sanville brings a native intensity to his role. His Agostino physically dominates his son, and he owns the stage.

He convincingly portrays an increasingly drunk, paranoid Sicilian who has lost his wife and mourns her passing by occasionally talking to her as if she is still there. His lines are infused with passion and Sicilian words of “wisdom” that must have come from the personal life of Mastrosimone when he was growing up.   

The scenes with Janice, however, come to life with a different shimmering intensity. Swarthout is initially appalled at what seems to be the old man’s repugnant disrespect for women, and yet as the play progresses she manages to find a way to carve through the stony exterior of this troubled soul to find, first a playful humor that his son has never seen, and then the tenderness inside.

In the midst of this Mastrosimone throws in a plot twist that wrenches one’s soul. 

Baby boomers who have taken on the task of caring at home for aging difficult parents will easily understand the love/confusion/hate dynamic of this story.

Agostino is not an easy character to like. Long unresolved issues between father and son do more than linger: They bubble up, like a volcano about to explode. 

Does the father break? Is there reconciliation? Do these three people live happily ever after? Of course not. 

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