In The Wilderness written by John Kearns is a multi-layered play highlighting the struggles of the students and faculty of St. Philomena’s High School as they try to make their way through their own wilderness of the South Bronx in 1987. It is powered by two strong themes: the myth of Sisyphus (rolling his boulder up the hill only to have it roll down as he neared the top each time) and the story of the Israelites who made their way through the desert after escaping from slavery in Egypt. Both are strong metaphors for the students trying to escape the life of poverty, early pregnancy, violence and drugs that awaits them were it not for the shelter of the private school. The play makes the point that, like the Israelites after their escape from Egypt, the struggles of the students and faculty of St. Philomena’s High School For Girls are often about perspective.
And the children of Israel said unto them, Would to God we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.
Amid the burned out buildings and the rough neighborhoods of the South Bronx, we find a catholic school where Paul Logan (Stephen Jangro), a first year teacher at St. Philomena’s girl’s school, is trying to inspire the young adults in his classroom to not get lost in the wilderness of their surroundings. To help keep them from succumbing to the obstacles and the temptations that might stop them from living up to their full potential and becoming just another part of the wasteland of lost dreams that was already surrounding them, Paul tries to open the eyes of the girls. At the same time, he’s trying to elivitate his own growing sense of hopelessness. He tells them the myth of Sisyphus; following this theme each of the characters recite a soliloquy throughout the show, reflecting on different aspects of struggle, perseverance or hope showing that their problem is not just unique to them.
These are beautiful poems written by Kearns which highlight the universality of the themes of struggle and underscore how the characters are weighing the issues internally. The idea came from director Richard Butler and really gives all of the actors a moment to connect with the audience. Perhaps in a future production a copy of these poems could be available for the audience to take home and meditation upon.
The play begins near Christmastime and Paul has already revised his dream of changing the paths of all of his students to merely hoping he might make a difference to just one before the year is out.
Carmen (played by Cristina Torres) is one of his most promising students and we see her truly bloom as she realizes her talent for writing. Carmen soon becomes lost in dreamy hero worship as she appreciates the positive feedback and critiques that Mr. Logan gives to her work. Paul gets over-invested in trying to make her his “one success” for the year. She becomes more and more important to him as a way for him to be motivated as he feels a growing sense of pointlessness when his teaching goes ignored by most of his students.
Carmen, is juggling a difficult home life, a “part time” job of 35 hours and the responsibility of raising her 11 year old brother in the wake of a mother who is not reliable. Paul encourages her to dare to dream for more.
Carmen with Mr. Logan and Ms. Farrell
However, when Carmen’s troubles come to a head she is brought to the school counselor Kate Farrell (Hannah Timmons). Kate struggles to maintain the balance between being supportive of the students and faculty while not being consumed with trying to help too much. Hannah Timmons does a great job of encapsulating this type of strong but firm presence that is the mainstay in institutions like St. Philomena’s.
Lily, Tawana, and Minerva (played by Octavia Chavez-Richmond, Nirayl Wilcox, and Marilyn Mineo)are other students in Carmen’s class who often serve as a Greek chorus. They help paint a richer picture of the world they live simply through normal conversation and chatter.
Rounding out this world is fellow teacher Bill Thorpe (Edward Raube-Wilson), Paul’s friend who serves as the reality check to see if Paul or Carmen are being brave or foolishly idealistic at different points in the play. He represents the perennial teacher who has grown a thick skin and simply seems to not care anymore. He does his job and is content to gawk at the nubile students for a cheap thrill. He believes that it’s better to be happy than overwhelmed by the problems he sees in his students everyday.
The charity being supported by this show is the Mercy Center, which is actually just a few buildings down from St. Philomena’s School in the Bronx. They work to help women and their families in the South Bronx liberate themselves from economic poverty by helping them develop skills as well as provide counseling and a community of respect. If you would like to help lend a hand, check out their website here: mercycenterbronx.org
In The Wilderness is an important work. It not just illustrates the plight of inner city youth but also parallels problems of all levels of society. I was moved by the completeness of the theme which was told through a simple plot in such as way as to make it memorable with a longlasting impact.
In the Wilderness
Benefiting: The Mercy Center in the South Bronx
Produced by Boann Books and Media LLC and Mark Butler
Directed by Richard P. Butler
Written by John Kearns
$18 General Admission
$9.00 for Film/Music Participants
FREE for Theatre Festivity Participants
Thursday 5/31/12 – 5:00pm = Performance #1
Saturday 6/2/12 – 6:30pm = Performance #2
Saturday 6/9/12 – 11:30am = Performance #3
Monday 6/11/12 – 4:30pm = Performance #4
Thursday 6/14/12 – 10:00pm = Performance #5
Sunday 6/17/12 – 2:00pm = Performance #6
At Bleecker Street Theatre (Upstairs)
45 Bleecker Street, New York, NY 10012
Conveniently located near:
Bleecker St (4 & 6)
Broadway – Lafayette St (B, D, F, M)
Prince St (N, R)
click here to purchase tickets