After a long string of homegrown scripts, the Purple Rose is presenting A Stone Carver by East Coast playwright William Mastrosimone. Best known for his 1980s Extremities, and more recently for Bang Bang You’re Dead, Mastrosimone likes to mix it up on stage. In Extremities, a trio of female vigilantes turns the tables on a rapist. Bang Bang You’re Dead explores Columbine-style teen violence. Next to those plays, Stone Carver is a gentle pastorale, but still it starts with a gun. An old man prepares to defend himself against bulldozers come to raze his home, and, when that confrontation is defused, he puts on boxing gloves and goes a few rounds with his son.
I like the lusty, hair-trigger tempers of Mastrosimone’s characters, and I like how he gives actors something to work with other than conversation. The guy with the gun is a raging bull of an Italian patriarch named Agostino, a seventh-generation specialist in the ancient Italian trade of sculpting stone angels for churches. His property is being demolished to make a freeway on-ramp, and he’s set to go down with the ship, when his estranged son, Raff (Matthew David), arrives with his fiancee, Janice (Charlyn Swarthout), to talk him out of it.
A generation’s worth of family values and conflicts get aired. We learn Raff broke his father’s heart by not taking up the family trade. We learn Agostino built his house by hand, makes his own wine, and commemorates his dead wife by carving her face into all his angels. But before we get all soppy about old world virtues, I should mention that when Agostino meets Janice, he dismissively slaps her on the rump, shows her the kitchen, and tells her to get cooking.
Agostino, to the extraordinary credit of Guy Sanville, who plays him, does not give off even the faintest echo of anyone in the pantheon of famous Italian-American icons: no Soprano, no Corleone, no Jersey Shore. He’s 100 percent original, and it’s great to see Sanville, the artistic director of the Purple Rose who rarely acts in his own productions.
A Stone Carver, which runs through March 10, is directed by Purple Rose veteran actor Rhiannon Ragland, but one senses she used a light touch on Sanville. Matthew David is somewhat eclipsed by him in the blander and less well drawn peacemaking role. Charlyn Swarthout, on the other hand, blooms–somewhat creepily–under Agostino’s rump-swatting patronage. By the end, after much quaffing of Agostino’s sturdy peasant wine, and unbuttoning of clothing, Agostino and Janice have made peace. In fact they seem to approve of each other a little more than is necessary, and dirty minds like mine will leave the theatre imagining a lurid sequel.