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Mercy & The Firefly

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Mercy and the Firefly is a play about apocalypse. Drug addicts are everywhere. Cities are overrun by gangsters. Teen-agers execute each other without question or regret. Even the nuns sneak cigarettes. But Mercy isn't about a future dystopia. It takes place in the present day, right in Homestead, Pa.

Playwright Amy Hartman has strong feelings about modern America, and they bubble to the surface in Mercy, a gloomy new drama now on stage at the Playhouse REP. Hartman's plot is a tangle of misdeeds and despair: If it's any indication how bleak her vision is, the play's titular character (Chelsea Mervis) is a trash-talking, mother-hating, anorexic Catholic school girl who was involved in a school shooting and refuses to launder her weeks-old dress. And Mercy is the hopeful character.

This premiere is a handsome production, with sharp performances by Shammen McCune (as a vigilante teacher) and Patrick Jordan (as her slacker-junkie ex-boyfriend). Penelope Lindblom plays a washed-up baby-boomer with all the attitude and outrageousness that the role requires. And although Mervis is unconvincing as an inner city thug-in-training, this young actress emotes like a pro. This is the best cast that the REP could hope for, and the action plays smoothly on Stephanie Mayer-Staley's ultra-realistic set.

But Mercy is a convoluted story, and it's hard to puzzle out which tragedy is whose. There's a missing father, a dead mother, a prowling gang and, at the story's center, the ghost of a speech-impaired girl who was shot in the face. The script is so downhearted, so grueling, that the few snatches of humor feel as useless as pennies in a wishing well.

Hartman is a dramatist of boundless imagination -- as evidenced by her madcap 2007 dramedy, The Chicken Snake -- but Mercy feels more merciless. Like the film Precious, Hartman shows the worst poverty, the most furious addictions, the most invasive crimes, until death would seem like relief. Add to this a backdrop of eerie Christian images, like foot-washing in a china bowl, or globs of mac-and-cheese served like Eucharist wafers. These people seem doomed the second they walk onstage. Why bother to hope? What can we offer these poor pilgrims but our prayers?

 

MERCY AND THE FIREFLY continues through April 17. Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland. $8-27. 412-392-8000 or pittsburghplayhouse.com.

Chelsea Mervis (left) and Shammen McCune in the Playhouse REP's Mercy and the Firefly. - PHOTO COURTESY OF DREW YENCHAK.

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