If I were an Italian-American woman who had lived in Bostonís North End during World War II, I would take exception to the portrait painted of me and my friends in John C. Picardiís play, The Sweepers, the opening salvo of a proposed series of 10 plays about the Italian immigrant experience. Picardi intends to write one for each decade of the 20th century, à la August Wilson, whoís further along with a similar sweep of the African-American experience. Picardiís project has been awarded a grant by the National Italian American Foundation, which is "committed to fighting the negative and inaccurate depictions of Italian Americans."
The trio of women depicted in Picardiís play ó best friends since childhood ó live in a world bounded by the narrow streets of the North End. The enclave is marvelously re-created in Richard Chambersís towering setting of red brick houses fronted by stone stoops around a small square that serves as Neighborhood Central. However, the womenís viewpoints extend no further than Prince Street. Bella (Marina Re) has her son, Sonny, who was classified 4-F because of a heart murmur and lives at home. But Dotty (M. Lynda Robinson) and Mary (Sarah Newhouse) are alone. Dottyís son is in the South Pacific; her husband lies shell-shocked in a Veteransí Hospital, where he sees Hitler at the window. Maryís husband and son, Vinnie and Vinnie Jr., are overseas serving their country.
Meanwhile, the women stay home and sweep their front steps clean throughout the day, which affords them the chance to eavesdrop and gossip. Mary collects newspapers and tin cans for the Allied effort, but otherwise the trioís existence consists of waiting and praying for the war to end to the Blessed Mother enshrined at the corner of the Square. Dotty is the dumb bunny of the threesome, Mary the rich girl with the strings of pearls from Shreve Crump and Low. Bella seems to have a secret that leads her to drinking. The play is set during August 1945, when the atomic bomb would change the course of civilization ó a circumstance that drones in the background as leitmotif to the more homey concerns
The action focuses on Sonny and Karenís impending wedding. Sheís a Wellesley College girl as well as an Italian Catholic whose family has escaped to the suburbs. Karen (Robyn Lee) is assimilated; Sonny (Brad Bass) occupies an area somewhere between life at home with his mother, who was abandoned by his Irish father, and the Beacon Hill law office of Karenís father, which is filled with opportunities for an educated, American-born son of immigrants ó including marrying the bossís daughter. Itís a familiar story that pokes loving fun, but fun nonetheless, at the Old Country traditions. Although The Sweepers does not call for the same damage control as the gangsta images perpetrated by The Sopranos, one wonders what benefit this play brings to the reputation of the Italian-American community, particularly the mamas.
The women speak to ó or more often yell at ó one another in vernacular peppered with the jabs of people who have known each other too well for too long. The dialogue is unencumbered by any poetic declaration of the charactersí yearnings or faith, in contrast to that of Wilsonís plays, where simple folks are elevated by the metaphoric language of the playwright. Re, Robinson, and Newhouse do a commendable job with characters who could stand as stereotypes of nearly any ethnic variety. And Reís physical attack on Bella about her obsession with taking precedence over Sonnyís new bride as the "lady of the house" effectively mines humor from the situation.
But the dilemma that dominates most of Picardiís play has to do with whether Sonny and his bride will hang out the traditional bridal sheet on the morning after their wedding. This time-honored ritual is meant to prove that Karen is pure and does not deserve the slur "Jenny the Pump." The playgoer must wait until the last 20 minutes for any deeper meaning, when the mood turns dark with somewhat distasteful revelations. It turns out the women have done more than just stand and wait, supported by their loyalty to each other (despite the insults), their dedication to basic values and family, and their belief in the power of the religion that permeates their lives 24/7. One wishes the playwright had paid more attention to these positive aspects of his women instead of churning out so many snappy comebacks.
Issue Date: April 9 - 15, 2004
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