Now playing at Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield, “An Italian Wife” is an expansive theatrical exploration of an Italian-American family saga spanning the 20th century. Presented by Epic Theatre Company, the broad and oftentimes poignant treatment follows an Italian immigrant and her family over the course of her 100-year life.
“An Italian Wife” is an adaptation of the book of the same name by Rhode Island novelist Ann Hood. The production is part of Epic Theatre Company’s ongoing “page-to-stage” initiative dedicated to bringing literary works onstage, spearheaded by Kevin Broccoli, artistic director and prolific playwright, actor and director. This is the first theatrical adaptation of a work by Hood, author of a number of bestselling novels, including “The Obituary Writer” and “The Knitting Circle.”
The foundation of “An Italian Wife” is the story of Josephine, born in a small village in Italy and betrothed as a young girl to a boorish older man. As a bewildered teenager staggering through her wedding celebration, naïve Josephine is wholly unprepared for the brutal consummation of the marriage on her wedding night, and the new life to which she has been bound. While Josephine is given a merciful reprieve as her new husband departs to make his way in America, she must eventually cross the Atlantic to meet him. The future that awaits her is a largely passionless existence, alienated from her new country within an Italian community in New England and consumed by the isolation of raising children in a loveless marriage. Josephine turns to the church in search of refuge from her unhappiness and disillusionment, but is preyed upon by her priest, Father Leone, who offers to relieve her sins through aberrant sexual behavior. Josephine’s brief affair with her ice delivery man offers a bittersweet and fleeting experience with pleasure, but she is left pregnant with a child she must secretly give up for adoption and an ensuing sense of loss that lasts a lifetime.
While Josephine’s story forms the backbone of the family saga, the narrative soon spins out to probe a montage of vignettes from her children’s lives, as well as from subsequent generations, maintaining a focus on her female descendants. Josephine looms large over the show as the story marches through two world wars and Vietnam with an emphasis on the homeland. While there are themes of alienation, loneliness and disillusionment, a common thread running throughout is recurring frustrated sexual connections, usually between desperate people. A disturbing portrayal of the Catholic Church casts a shadow over many of the stories, especially as the repulsive Father Leone turns his attention to Josephine’s daughters.
Stylistically, the production has the hybrid effect of dramatized storytelling with a minimalist presentation well suited to CTC. The stage is framed by the all-female cast of 11 actors in a semi-circle, stepping forward to narrate and enact the scenes. There is no set other than 11 chairs, and the actors’ scarves are creatively deployed as props and costume pieces throughout the show. The performers are present on stage throughout the narrative, playing multiple roles, sharing roles, and assisting with sound and stage effects. The cast also serves as a chorus, listening intently and reacting with empathy to the intimate and often painful stories depicted at center stage. Supporting design elements are simple but powerful, particularly the effective lighting design of Technical Director Maggie Cady.
Thematically, the show is most penetrating in its unflinching portrayal of an immigrant family through the story of the matriarchy, sharpened here by the presence of the all-female cast. There is a blunt honesty in the untold stories, scandals and secrets that are very real to all family histories, but not usually included in the official (and often patriarchal) narratives told at the dinner table. This production upends the romanticized stereotypes of the lives of women in Italian-American families and challenges the sentimentalized immigrant mythologies Rhode Islanders are so often steeped in.
While the transition from page to stage animates these stories with an immediacy and emotion, at times the adaptation comes at a price. The breadth of the story is not easily confined within a 90-minute show. The depth the play achieves in telling Josephine’s story is abbreviated as new generations take the stage. By the second act, the jump cuts lose focus at times and become unmoored from the family story. While the recurring interest in loveless and often painful sexual connections echoes Josephine’s unfulfilled sexuality, the characters sometimes disappear before the audience can invest in their stories. The solid ensemble work of the cast is sometimes undercut by confusion over the characters and the non-sequitur effect of a couple of the episodes. The sweeping structure of the play reinforces a sense of hopelessness, as the stories flit through time. By the time the show circles back to Josephine’s story at the end of her life, her journey from naïve girl to dying old woman seems more futile than a hard life worth living.
This is a true ensemble production and the performances are poignantly rendered by a talented cast. The all-female device is particularly effective in the depiction of the male characters, especially Amy Thompson’s portrayal of Josephine’s husband, Vincenzo, and the abusive Father Leone. One could hardly fault Cherylee Sousa Dumas for giving Josephine a little edge. After a life of abuse, loss and sexual repression, Josephine is not going to fulfill anyone’s fantasies of the warm and matronly Italian grandmother from a pasta sauce commercial. There is a familiarity and a truth in Dumas’ evocation of the hard shell of an older woman who has been battered by life but is left standing, reticent to reveal her sorrows and secrets.
Theatergoers and fans of Ann Hood might be interested to attend a special “talk back” with the author after the April 1 production. Those who come to the production seeking only the well-trodden and nostalgic indulgences in romanticized memories will not come away unchallenged. This is a stark story, which attempts to give voice to the unspoken stories and deeply personal inner lives of the family matriarchy, the female ancestors who so often recede to the background. In spite of the challenges of bringing a work of this scope to stage, much resonates in this ambitious production. “An Italian Wife” explores sex, gender roles and the ethnic experience in an era torn between tradition and assimilation. With sad beauty, “An Italian Wife” serves as an affecting reminder of the ways people cling intimately together in spite of disappointments, loneliness and loss.