How It’s New York:  Playwright Anna Kerrigan comes from California, but she is a New Yorker now, and this professional playwriting debut is happening at Second Stage Theatre Uptown.
How It’s Irish:  The Clarkes, the family in the play, are Irish-Catholic.   The four siblings go to Catholic school.   One of them reports that “Coach O’Malley said it was God’s will” that Holy Names lost their softball game. An offstage nun is key to the action.  And there’s a woodcut of The Last Supper over the kitchen door.

Sharon Esper (Joan Marcus)

Once upon a time, being tall for a girl meant less “Yippee, I can be a model” than “I am a freak, and I’d better wear flats.”   New playwright Anna Kerrigan’s charming coming-of-age story The Talls brings home that tall or short, growing up is a journey.  It runs through August 27th at Second Stage Uptown.

The Talls describes the Clarke family (Kerrigan told me that finding tall actors was a casting challenge).    It’s a  universal coming-of-age, not slotted as a “girl play,”  and that’s something to celebrate.   Kerrigan’s repartee, insight, and  skill at creating a loving, complex family are also reasons to celebrate this debut.  Smoothly directed by Carolyn Cantor, the play is set in 1970– a  threshold time in America and in Oakland, California, where the play takes place.

In 1970, Vietnam is raging.  Both Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr. have already been assassinated.  Woodstock has been and gone.  Flower Power and hippieness is around– but there’s a sense that the glory days have happened.  For college-bound, 17 year old Isabelle (Sharon Esper, daughter of famed acting coach Bill Esper), there’s also the awareness of leaving behind the cozy, safe world of a 60s childhood to venture into the unknown.   She veers back and forth between the “older sister” role she plays with her three younger siblings, breaking up their squabbles and reminding them to take off their muddy shoes, and the non-bra wearing, noncomformist rebel she wants to become.

Christa Scott-Reed (Joan Marcus)

1970 is also a time when many women, such as Isabelle’s mother, Anne (Christa Scott-Reed), and her best friend, Sister Connie (offstage but highly important) would have grown up without a full awareness of the scope of their choices (the Feminist movement exists, but isn’t in full swing.  Ms. won’t be on newsstands for two more years).  

What kicks the play in motion is the visit of Isabelle’s father’s campaign manager– he’s running for town comptroller.  His impending visit is why Mrs. Clarke  comes in with her hair all done, talking about pigs-in-blankets, and the reason she asks Isabelle to change into an “Easter dress.”  While Isabelle’s changing,  the phone rings announcing that Sister Connie’s been hit by a car.     The entire family rush out to the hospital, forgetting Isabelle upstairs.  When Russell James (Gerard Canonico) arrives, she’s the only one there.   Hostile at first, she soon susses that he’s not that much older and kind of cute, if a foot shorter than her.  Before you know it she’s pretending to know how to smoke grass (she has some, but doesn’t really know how to do it), and changing into a maxi dress.  Even as she tries to impress him, the real Isabelle begins to surface.

Through talking to him she also begins to have a revelation about Sister Connie and her mother.  “Connie didn’t want to marry Jesus,” Isabelle marvels.  “Who wants to marry Jesus?”  and “My mother is a lesbian.  I like here so much better now.”  This could all be a snoozy rap session in the hands of another writer, but Kerrigan’s funny lines and visual jokes keep things buoyant.  Isabelle may be a little overearnest, but Kerrigan is not.

Gerard Canonico, Sharon Esper (Joan Marcus)

While the revelations and events have changed people, the play doesn’t go into Real Housewives, slamming doors and “how could you” territory.  Instead, we see a young girl beginning to free herself, even as she helps her mom cope.

The acting is top notch, with nuanced performances all around.   Esper brings a seeking sweetness to Isabelle, leaping from self-confident oldest to insecurity in the flutter of an eyelash.   Scott-Reed’s Anne similarly bounces from housewife as office manager to bewilderment in a flash.   Canonico’s James, playing a fairly familiar role as the brash young man who gets the repressed girl to free herself, highlights the character’s gentleness and sensitivity as well as his truthtelling (it’s in the writing, too).    Bravo to Dane Laffrey for the period details of the set (I already mentioned the woodcut, and this is a good place to mention the two-level side table),  and the music used throughout (sound design by M.I. Dogg)sets the mood.  Jenny Mannis’ costumes were period, attractive and evocative.

Christa Scott-Reed, Sharon Esper (Joan Marcus)

It’s easy to overexaggerate period, and Kerrigan mostly doesn’t– it’s 1970, but the characters weren’t born then, and one has the sense of the 60s having just passed.    I do wish Isabelle’s reference to “Free to Be You and Me” had been cut– it won’t come out until 1972 (1974 for the school special), and there’s no reason a college kid would care.  Her attitudes may be a little overly accepting for a Catholic school girl in 1970, but it’s also in Califronia, and I went with it.

The times were a-changing, and still are, but some things never change, like the strong, chafing, securing ties of a loving family. 

At Second Stage Uptown, the McGinn/Cazale Theatre (Broadway @ 76th Street).  Performances M-Sat 7:30; matinees Wed. and Sat. at 2.  Tickets online or at (212) 246-4422.

Gwen Orel
About the Author

The only New York journalist who writes for both the Forward and Irish Music Magazine.