There is an unholy breeze, keenly felt, blowing through the tombstones at St. Michael’s Catholic Cemetery, hard by the Long Island Expressway, in Richard Vetere’s play "Last Day", now at Gloucester Stage Company’s Gorton Theater in Gloucester through August 7. The play, in a world premiere, is cleverly written with taut, realistic dialog. It achieves buoyancy despite the heaviness of its depicted locale and dark subject matter, thanks to a talented cast of three actors who breathe life into otherwise moribund characters who harbor deep secrets.
With shovel in hand, Ryan (Timothy John Smith), approaches the final day of his employ at St. Michael’s with a weariness that has only been made bearable by his friendship and affection for the cemetery’s manager, Sean (Francisco Solorzano). The two have been pals since elementary school. Sean is married to Melissa (Therese Plaehn). The couple lives on the cemetery grounds in a rent-free home, supplied to them by the Archdiocese.
The celebratory mood of Ryan’s last day is short-lived when Sean answers his cell phone and is told that his employers are eying a section of the cemetery for a needed expansion. It is here, in Section 15, under the shade of a nearby tree, that a former nemesis, a man Ryan has murdered, lies buried. As the play unfolds we learn why this grave remains unquiet and what the three characters must do to further silence it.
Within the required physical exertion that must be expended in order to move the remains of the murder victim from Section 15 to a safe section of the cemetery, each character reveals their own unholy pasts. Vetere is skillful here in developing plot twists that center around honor, friendship, sexuality, morality, and survival.
As Ryan, Timothy John Smith has to show a man who has shouldered the burden of having committed a murder while withholding his reason for taking another man’s life, not made apparent until the play’s last scene. A tall, hulking presence, Smith, by turns, uses his long-handled shovel to prop up his weariness and to wield it as a weapon. In both instances, he communicates how his character wrestles with a dignity he knows he doesn’t deserve. He gets to deliver some of the best lines in the play. But there are a couple instances when Vetere can’t help himself and emerges a bit heavy handed. He has Ryan spout poetic lines that do not ring true to his character, namely the conjuring of a line from a poem by Dylan Thomas, "Do not go gentle into that good night." There is another onstage reference to Shakespeare’s "Hamlet" that has the same leaden effect. These literary allusions could easily be excised during a text revision.
Francisco Solorzano gives us a Sean that is dutiful and obedient, eager to please and rueful about the events that have led up to the murder, the act itself, and the aftermath. He portrays Sean’s conflicts with ungodliness and indecency, which go against his choir boy past. He desperately clings to the notion of forgiveness as he labors to find his way back to the innocence of his past he can never reclaim.
As his Melissa, Therese Plaehn shines: there is a sexual tension in her interactions with Ryan that are immediately perceptible and her scenes with Sean are heartfelt thanks to her abilities to convey a tangled mass of emotions that finally unite in the couple’s passionate embrace at the play’s end.
"Last Day" is not light and frothy summer theatre fare, all the more reason to seek it out. It is the work of a gifted playwright, interpreted by a talented cast under Eric C. Engel’s insightful direction.
The play is baptized not "in nomine patris" (in the name of the father), but rather, "in nomine diaboli" (in the name the devil).
"Last Day", by Richard Vetere, directed by Eric C. Engel, is at the Gloucester Stage Company, Gorton Theater, Gloucester, through August 7.: Visit the company’s website for ticket information.