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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Faithfall’ a tight, complex play on a mission of insights

Critic At Large

University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Theatre and Dance

Allie Lent and Sean Stalvey in a scene from “Faithfall” presented by University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Theatre and Dance. (Warren Gerds screenshot)

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – A nun commits suicide.

The nun has a checkered past.

The nun has an admired recent present.

Her estranged biological sister and her colleague/priest try to sort out the nun and themselves as they bob roughly in her wake.

That’s the gist of “Faithfall,” a tightly-wrapped play that is in its world-premiere presentation by way of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Theatre and Dance and COVID-19.

Without the coronavirus, Thomas Michael Campbell’s play would not have been forced into a situation where valuable additional accesses are gained online. A preview segment introduces the players, the playwright and informational background materials. A post-show segment contains four experts speaking about the complexities of the suicidal, with the playwright noting his motivation:

“Let’s use theater to talk about things we don’t want to talk about.”

The play is theater with a purpose.

What the technical production is not is slick. The images on screen – the characters dressed in all black – are grainy and quivery. Sound in some sections is minimal. The players perform in separate spaces, though are made to seem to be next to one another by visual editing. While the availability of closed captioning is a plus, the technical neediness is off-putting, especially for such a remarkable play, and yet… and yet this:

The content is more important than the package.

How effective the play and players are doesn’t even come into the post-show discussion. The psychology experts talk about the characters as if they are real. The performances and the characters are that convincing. Thomas Campbell is spoken of and to with respect.

The performance style is naturalistic. Whitney Long has come to a convent in Chicago to pick up the belongings of her sister, Gwen, who Father Michael knows as Sister Catherine. First awkward moments of strangers meeting of a necessity give way to a growing ease in conversing. That leads to the straightforward Whitney letting rip about her sister’s renegade youth and the Catholicism she grew up in and now dismisses. Whitney’s anger pokes Father Michael in the eye, and he responds heatedly.

Thomas Campbell has a way with creating dialogue that probes.

UWGB theater majors Allie Lent and Sean Stalvey, guided by the caring direction of John Mariano, draw full characters – not stick people but complex beings with layers of hues and shadings and intensities.

The production is theater in a different league.

The preview includes a moderator, Alyssa Hannam, a UWGB theater student, speaking with the players about their performances. A prime topic is creating a character from scratch – being the first person to bring words on a page into a flesh-and-blood soul. As Allie Lent says, “No one’s ever built Whitney before.”

The preview includes background on these topics: Catholic Terms (Rosary Prayer, Three Hail Mary’s and Act of Contrition), Mental Health Overview, Depression, Suicide, Mental Health and Catholicism, Catholicism and Suicide and Suicide Prevention Resources.

The post-show segment is a Zoom-like six-screen discussion with Alyssa Hannam, Thomas Campbell, and the experts: Lissa Balison, senior counselor, UWGB Counseling Services; Julie Preder, executive director, Mental Health America-Sheboygan County; Kris Vespia, associate professor, UWGB Department of Psychology; and Georjeanna Wilson-Doenges, professor and chair, UWGB Department of Psychology.

This is clear in the observations and advice: Suicide is complex. Answers seem to blow in the wind. Seek help.

Thomas Campbell explains the title, “Faithfall,” in part suggesting the nun needed more than faith to pull away from her riddles. In his play, everyone searches for answers.

By accident, the post-show session suits this time of COVID-19. The discussion is about mortality, and the pandemic is all about mortality.

***

Link: Anytime through Dec. 8 via the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts’ YouTube channel. See weidnercenter.com.

Creative: Playwright – Thomas Michael Campbell; director – John Mariano; costume and make-up design – Kaoime E. Malloy; properties design – Hayden Barlass; dramaturgy – Alyssa Hannam; technical director and video editor – Dinesh Yadav; assistant technical director and recording technician – David Cook; production stage manager – Ally Swigert; graphic design – Joshua Ege

Cast

Whitney Long – Allie Lent

Father Michael – Sean Stalvey

Running time: 90 minutes (play); two hours and 50 minutes for complete package

***

NEXT: “Only for Now,” a revue, Dec. 10-15.

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