Monday, November 13, 2006

Edgardo Mine (The SOB Review) - McGuire Proscenium Stage, Guthrie, Minneapolis, MN

Edgardo Mine (The SOB Review) - McGuire Proscenium Stage, Guthrie, Minneapolis, MN

***1/2 (out of ****)

Ever since 9/11, the news media has devoted an overwhelming amount of coverage to the rift between the Judeo-Christian West and the Muslim world. Countless stories have often centered on each side's demonization of the other.

While Jews and Christians in the West have largely been successful at putting aside historic differences for a peaceful co-existence and integration of cultures, we still have a long road to traverse before we achieve similar success with the Muslim world.

Yet, historically speaking, it wasn't that long ago that Jewish people were demonized, particularly in Europe. Even before the horrific rise of the Nazis, Jews were effectively subjugated under the absolute rule of the Catholic Church from the Holy Roman Empire through the days of the Papal States (arguably nothing was more absolute than the fervent belief among Christians and Jews that the other could not inherit the kingdom of heaven).

It's against that repressive backdrop in 19th Century Italy that Alfred Uhry's riveting and vitally important play Edgardo Mine is set (Edgardo Mine opened over the weekend at Minneapolis' Guthrie). Under the expert direction of Mark Lamos, Edgardo Mine had me seriously struggling to determine where love and devotion end and evil and demonization begin.

As the play begins, the Mortara family has just moved to Bologna, Italy with their baby boy Edgardo. After years of weathering life in Jewish ghettos, matriarch Marianna Mortara jubilantly proclaims with a sense of relief, "We can live like everyone else."

But such would not be the case. As an infant, Edgardo nearly died, and fearful that his death would mean his certain damnation, his Christian nurse secretly baptizes him. Shortly thereafter, Edgardo makes a "miraculous" recovery.

Papal law forbade Christian children from being raised by "infidels." When word of Edgardo's "miracle" finally reaches Pope Pius IX, an abduction of the now six year old boy is ordered. Police sweep into the Mortara home and carry young Edgardo away to live in the House of Catechumens in Rome. There, Edgardo is raised as a Christian under the direct oversight of the Pope, despite the attempts of the Mortara family to rescue him and return him to their home.

Yes, there are shades of the Elian Gonzalez story that captivated Americans more than six ago. But ostensibly, Edgardo Mine is a moving examination of the conviction of Jew and Christian alike to do what they deeply believe to be right. In this case, the conviction displayed by both the Mortaras and the Pope is ultimately to be good parents to the young child.

Of course, it seems completely unfathomable today that any child could be forcefully taken away from parents unless they had actually harmed the child. Yet 146 years ago, with the belief that this baptized Christian boy's spiritual health would be irreparably harmed if left to live with his natural parents, Pope Pius IX believed he had no choice but to remove Edgardo from his home. Indeed, upon his abduction, the Pontiff triumphantly states, "Another imprisoned soul has been set free."

In addition to the outstanding performances delivered in Edgardo Mine along with a divinely glorious colonnade set design by Riccardo Hernandez, what gives this production particular heft is Uhry's conscious decision not to prejudice the audience. In fact, at last week's Guthrie-sponsored discussion, he stated, "The function of a playwright is not to take sides and not provide answers to the questions I raise. I tried not to say who was right and who was wrong."

To accomplish that feat, Uhry skillfully imbues both sides -- the parents and the Pope -- with loving, nurturing traits that make absolutes feel all the more uncertain. Undeniable is the benevolence inherent in Brian Murray's impeccable and surprisingly moving performance as Pope Pius IX, or "Nono" as he is adoringly called by Edgardo. But just as indubitable is the forceful and spirited conviction Jennifer Regan breathes into her portrayal of Marianna.

When two souls both lay claim to the moral high ground, who wins? When does righteous action in the name of a fundamental belief actually do more harm than good? And is that evil?

Certainly, the conclusion most in the audience will draw is that the Papacy erred in taking Edgardo from his parents; considering that the Pope's infallibility remains official Catholic Church dogma to this day, such an inference may very well be deemed heresy among Catholicism's true believers. But thanks to the subtlety of Uhry's triumph in telling Edgardo Mortara's little known story, we're allowed to make up our own minds about what's right and wrong, as well as good and evil.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
Driving Alfred Uhry (November 6, 2006)

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