Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha opens on the Penrose household with mom Una Penrose distractedly typing on her computer as her shirtless teenage son Chris blasts The White Stripes from his speakers. They waste no time diving into fast paced dialogue, arguing over the imminent arrival of Una’s mother Marilyn, and how her presence will ruin Chris’s plans to celebrate the sabbath with his girlfriend Patty. Little does Una know that Chris has invented a fake sabbath for a fake religion in order to get his mom out of the house so he can have a night alone with his girlfriend.
The argument sets the tone for the rest of the play, which is rife with conflict, tragedy, and struggle in each character’s life. Themes of disappointment (in one’s self as well as one another), soul searching, abuse (both physical and sexual), and lies weave in and out of the stories the characters tell throughout the play. Chris’s character is most vocal, letting loose his anger and wearing his issues on his sleeve (if he had one, he goes topless the entire play). He has a sort of directionless rebellion but real yearning for meaning that’s reminiscent of Holden Caulfield in the Catcher in the Rye. But while he seems like the most outwardly damaged person on stage, he’s also the character who makes the most progress through the course of the play, which takes place through the lonely hours of one night, finding real peace and connection in the rituals of his fake Church of the Piranha.
The three female characters of the play, Chris’s mother, grandmother, and girlfriend, gravitate around him, interacting with him differently but sharing similar painful personal histories. We get brief glimpses into their lives, and how they’ve adapted in order to hide their wounds. For as much conflict and fighting that goes on during the play, the women characters are best at drawing out touching moments of empathy, forgiveness, and understanding.
Throughout Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha there are numerous instances of beautifully crafted imagery, like when Chris describes his dream of skeletons walking around, just made up of “bones with scotch tape.” And there are playful double meanings too, like when the grandmother Marilyn who keeps talking about getting “stuck in that loop” when she drives near her family. But while the elaborate dialogue would shine on paper, it sometimes diminishes the drama on stage, and and reveals the origins of this play. Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha was first a collection of short stories, and playwright Ed Falco pieced them together to create something new.
The performance I attended was followed by a talk with Falco and his insights gave an added depth to the play. Falco admitted that this was his first work for the stage and that it was written more like a fiction than a play. Since this piece he’s written a number of other plays and he says they’re quite different. For one, there’s less dialogue and more drama. He’s also more aware of his audience when he writes plays now, since a “play is an instant review.” If you intended something to be funny and no one laughs (or if a line was meant to be serious and it elicits chuckles), then you immediately know that that part failed in a way. Conversely, when he writes fiction he doesn’t think about the reader.
Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha has some undeniably moving scenes, and eloquently portrays both the journey into adulthood as well as the never ending struggle with one’s past. But it’s roots as a collection of short stories shows through, and it’s unsurprising to hear it was the author’s first play. Nonetheless, the energy of the actors, the careful selection of the words, and the powerful drama of the set made for a compelling experience. It left one eager to see more from both the Taking Flight Theater Company and Ed Falco alike.
Elisabeth Grant is a writer and web content editor in the D.C. area. She is the author of Virginia Tech: Off the Record and a contributing author to the Not for Tourists 2009 Guide to Washington DC. Currently much of her time is spent writing about interesting events, news, and food for the blog DCist.
Miss the play? Buy the collection of the same name: Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha: New and Selected Stories
Interested in Edward Falco? Try one of Ad Hominem's all-time favoritecollections and the winner of the Richard Sullivan Prize for Short Stories: Acid Stories.