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Brian C. Petti's 'Banshee' Has Not Yet Reached Full Potential

Ryan David McRee |
October 8, 2014 | 4:10 p.m. PDT


Bill Voorhees and Alysha Brady. Photo by Rebecca Sigl
Bill Voorhees and Alysha Brady. Photo by Rebecca Sigl

While the notion of ghosts and the superstitions that surround them may seem a tad antiquated to a contemporary audience, "Banshee" by Brian C. Petti brings up very relevant issues in the context of an Irish legend. Intermingling topics of mental health stigmatization, racial tension, generational gaps, family relationships and religious stringency, "Banshee" makes a bold attempt to take on a great myriad of modern concerns. While the production of the play at Theatre of Note has numerous weaknesses and limitations, it does achieve a fundamental aim of the arts— the provocation of thought.

Banshee depicts the story of Jerry Sullivan (Bill Voorhees), known as “Junior” by friends and family, following his release from a mental hospital, in which it is revealed he was being treated for catatonic schizophrenia. He begins to pick up the pieces of his life, getting a new job with the help of his brother, Neil (Joe Mahon) and being set up on a date with one of Neil’s coworkers, Cara (Alysha Brady). As Junior and Cara’s relationship starts to blossom, he faces stark opposition from his oppressive mother (Lynn Odell) for reasons concerning her own dependency on Junior, Junior’s deceased father, and old superstitions from the family’s Irish heritage.

The world premiere of the play, directed by James R. Carey, reveals that "Banshee" has a great deal of promise as an important work of theatre, but indicates that the work isn’t quite there yet. The play doesn’t start until the second act, where it begins to delve into the heart of the show’s conflict and picks up the dramatic action of the plot. The first act, unfortunately, suffers from grounding, organization, and clear necessity of being. Scenes are constructed by characters being dropped into irrelevant locations without objective, and then stumbling upon one somewhere along the way. The plot manages to progress in some scenes, after a great deal of extraneous dialogue, and in others nothing appears to be achieved. There are multiple comic relief scenes that feature a Driver (Norm Johnson) that, although humorous, does nothing to progress the plot and the scenes are clearly thrown in for laughs. Although Johnson delivers a delightful, charming performance, he lacks the script to make much of an impression, as the relevance of his character is never established.

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The progression of the play does tighten, however, in the second half, and cause-effect relationships between scenes are much more clear. The production begins to scratch the surface of the deeper issues of the play as Junior’s mother stands in the way of his mental recovery, causing him to regress into instability due to her stigmas regarding mental health and Irish folktales that scare Junior out of his relationship. The tension between the Sullivan boys and their mother relates to contemporary debates regarding the schism between tradition and modern morality, particularly in the medical field. 

Although performances do become more engaging in the second half of the play due to better source material, a fault of the acting (and/or the direction) is that the characters lack depth. Voorhees’s performance reveals two aspects to his character— a fairly normal, unassuming guy who’s just trying to start a life for himself and a very troubled victim of mental anguish. While Voorhees delivers a compelling and believable performance of both sides of this character, the halves lack solidarity. They appear to be two separate characters rather than being one nuanced, complex individual. Jerry’s mother is a domineering, narrow-sighted manipulator— and not much else. Perhaps the highlight of the acting company was USC alumni Mahon, who wears the hats of both a screwball companion and a vigorous defender to his brother.

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William Moore Jr.’s scenic design is appropriately sparse— except for the imposing Celtic cross in the background of the stage, important in its illustration of Irish Catholicism’s imposing presence in the lives of the characters but perhaps a tad overbearing for the material— the prevalence of the theme in the script doesn’t quite merit the power of such a meaningful symbol. The lighting design by Matt Richter effectively distinguishes mundane reality from Junior’s suffocating psychotic episodes. While the sound effects of Cricket S. Myers’s sound design are compelling and immersive, the music between scenes is suffocatingly Irish and takes away from other thematic elements of the show.

Although the premiere can’t hide the faults in "Banshee", it holds promise as a play and may be on its way to being a very important theatrical meditation on essential questions of our day. With editorial work and another production, the show could be very dramatically and intellectually compelling, but as it is, it fails to live up to its ambitious promise.

"Banshee" is playing through November 1 at Theatre of Note (1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Los Angeles). Tickets are $20-$25. For more information visit wwwTheatreOfNote.com.

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