Historians have speculated that All Saints Day — a solemn observation honoring saints of the Catholic church who've died and attained heaven — was developed as a means of de-paganizing an ancient rite. The Roman feast of Lemuralia was originally a springtime event, wherein offerings of food were made by individual households to exorcise restless, tormenting spirits of dead family members.
Julianne Homokay's pitch-black comedy All Saints in the Old Colony may be a piece of contemporary theater, but it harkens back to this ancient rite. And even though it's a classic slice of kitchen-sink-style social realism and not a supernatural horror story, this is very much a play about curses, demons, death, desire, and unshakable disappointment.
It's a fantastic POTS@TheWorks world premiere that finds laughter in some extremely dark places as it introduces audiences to a broken Irish family from Boston's rapidly gentrifying Southie neighborhood. It's a bleak but loving exploration of tradition, ritual, memory and the meaning of family that is, by turns, hard to watch and impossible to look away from. With subtle, effective direction by Jeff Posson, and a top-drawer cast, All Saints is an exciting, emotionally charged way to say hello to a new year of theater in Memphis.
All Saints in the Old Colony feels like Homokay's New England-flavored answer to Katori Hall's housing project drama Hurt Village. The Old Colony, Boston's second oldest housing project, has changed quite a bit in recent years, but was once a dense cluster of brick towers populated by poor Irish families. As with Hurt Village, All Saints is set against a backdrop of gentrification and change. It tells the story of Kier, an Irish-born immigrant and disabled dock worker who, in the absence of parents, raised his siblings as best he could, making hard decisions that still haunt his malnourished, whiskey-soaked brain.
More specifically, it tells the story of an attempted intervention where the whole family comes together — including sister Fiona who was given up for adoption at an early age — to help Kier into a healthier lifestyle. But, in the words of playwright Sam Shepard, whose work is also reflected in All Saints, there's no hope for the hopeless. Opportunities for temporary escape abound, but for these siblings normalcy will always be relative, and there's no hope that these four — five, counting an offstage brother too unforgiving to appear — will ever find peace, let alone happiness.
In an early moment, Greg Boller's Kier opens the refrigerator and waves off the stink of rotten food as he dives in looking for a pack of baloney to make offerings to his household Saints. Even if we didn't see all the garbage piled up in corners, Boller's relationship with the smells in his environment tell us exactly where we are. His is a strong, physically-committed performance at the heart of an incredible ensemble.
As Ronan, Keir's brother who never left Southie, John Maness offers a master class in honest, unflashy character acting. Marques Brown is similarly compelling as brother Mickey who left Catholicism to become an Episcopal priest and fully embrace both his West Coast lifestyle and his wife Tiffani. Or is it Tiffanii?
Ronan's known his long lost sister Fiona for some time, even though they didn't know they were related. Like a character from some Hawthorne short story, Fiona, in spite of her separation from the family, lived a parallel life. She became a bartender. Ronan frequents bars. Stuff happens. Their introduction is uncomfortably hilarious and a real twist to Fiona's story, which may ultimately be the saddest of them all. In an ensemble full of great performances, Erin Shelton's Fiona is, perhaps, the most deeply satisfying.
All Saints is a boisterous play about a family that drinks, squabbles, fistfights, tells old stories, sings old songs, and doesn't clean up very much. It's about real people, real problems, and real places. And it's haunted by unwholesome spirits who refuse to stay dead. POTS@TheWorks has brought Memphis some solid world premieres. All Saints in the Old Colony is the best yet.