Article by Tamara Cacchione & Joe Eriole
A New Work by a Local Playwright Leaves its First Audience Moved and Intrigued
A sold-out crowd of theater-goers mingled over wine and cheese at the Clove Creek Dinner Theater on the last Sunday evening of September. As the audience found their seats, Louisa Vilardi thanked them for attending the debut of her new and moving play, Tough Love, produced by The New Deal Creative Arts Center.
With light blocking at important moments and a cast of five skilled actors who have worked with her throughout the development of the piece, Vilardi was able to convey the vision she has for her new work.
A simple black curtain, actors in all black, and a strong, clear voice reading important stage directions (David Perez-Ribada), allowed audience members to imagine with sufficient clarity what a fully staged performance might look like.
Vilardi has set her play at Sunday dinner in an Italian home which she acknowledges is reflective of her own family history. Indeed many of the most endearing and eclectic aspects of the Sunday dinner setting and the family dynamics themselves, are drawn from her own experience, such as the fact that they eat in the basement of their modest home on Sundays, and that the possibility that there will be no bread at dinner rises to the level of tragedy. The same mix of her own experience and original creative process colors her characters, as well. But the play is not strictly autobiographical. “I am inspired by people I love. And I am inspired by people I can’t stand. So, I took a bunch of those people and threw them in a play,” Vilardi says.
For many families, Sunday dinner is a time to connect with loved ones, a time to rest and recuperate from a long week, and a time to share exciting and important news. For the Marino family, this particular Sunday dinner does not go as planned. The elder Marinos, Rae and Lou, have an announcement they’d like to make, which they assume will be the main event of the afternoon. But each of their two children have news of their own to report, which throws their revelation to the back of the line in a hurry. Their oldest son, Eric, announces he has made partner at his job. After the excitement of this announcement dies down, lackadaisical son Danny, still living at home and typically sleeping until noon, announces that he is moving out and has taken a “lover” (a word to which he is gleefully and obstinately attached despite the rest of the family’s cringing each time it is uttered). But even these momentous changes will not be center stage for long. As the evening continues, the reverberation of these announcements and the further unfolding of more personal concerns, begin to threaten the Marino family’s precarious stability. Secrets are revealed and hidden feelings verbalized, ensuring that the Marino family will never return to quite the same Sunday dinner table again.
Vilardi smoothly takes the audience on a journey that begins, and is laced throughout, with uproarious laughter. The show, however, often evokes tears and delivers many poignant moments as well. Vilardi’s dialogue is witty and natural, her characters fully fleshed out people that the audience will surely recognize. It is a testament to the effectiveness of the dialogue that in the talk-back conducted after the show, the audience participated enthusiastically in musing about the possible futures of the family, as well as the connections they felt to their own past which were aroused by the show.
Laurel Riley-Brown (Rae) ably demonstrated the aching desire of the Marino matriarch to see all of her children at peace without shaking up the status quo of the family. Riley-Brown’s ability to bring character and charming personality to her role, while maintaining her naturalism is no small feat. It would be quite easy to fall into a satire of an Italian mother, but Riley-Brown’s deep respect for the text created a humorous and lovable Rae.
Joe Eriole skillfully captures the flawed but well-meaning patriarch, Lou. We don’t know precisely what Lou is going to announce to his family, but it is clear that there is a crisis in the Marinos’ marriage, and Eriole deftly gives us the impression that one of them may be less convinced of the impending course than the other. Lou’s journey throughout the play may seem more slight than that of other family members, but it is no less penetrating thanks to the execution of Eriole, who nabbed the subtle moments and seized key opportunities to evoke a layered and complex character, emoting moments of pathos, humor, anger, and bumbling confusion.
Kate, Eric’s long-suffering wife, is stunningly portrayed by Teresa Gasparini. Gasparini gracefully creates a Kate filled with compassion and a gentleness that belies a deep fire underneath. As the play turns from humor to something more sobering, Kate’s transformation entranced the audience as Gasparini subtly shifted and revealed a powerhouse of pain and strength.
As Danny, Austin Lightning Carrothers’ sleek portrayal of the youngest Marino was a delight. Carrothers breezily rolled through the hills and valleys of showing us what happens when a laid-back young man is forced into the spotlight of a serious family drama.
Steven Bendler, as older brother Eric, gave a superb performance. There was a fire in his eyes as Eric hid his stress and anxiety behind anger, and tears in his eyes as secrets were revealed. Eric is a man hinged on trying to make everything work out the way he thinks will be best. Bendler’s portrayal of what happens when he can’t control what other people do and the outcome was captivating.
Vilardi says the script will continue to develop, and that the comments and reactions of a live audience are vitally important to her developing a script that will move audiences to feel the wide range of familial tensions and connections which she seeks to present in Tough Love. Vilardi elaborates, “I’ve had to pick up a lot of pieces in life, not only for myself, but for others, and that’s what Tough Love is really about: giving up or giving in when things fall apart, and the strength that comes from picking up those pieces.”
While rooted in the mind’s eye of its playwright’s personal experience, any success in its future will be due to the universality of its themes of familial love and tension. In her own words, “What’s most important to me right now is getting the words heard in front of audiences and to get feedback.”
If the feedback Ms. Vilardi received at this reading is any indicator, it is not difficult to imagine its path to a wider audience, beginning in our own backyard. Produced by New Deal Creative Art Center, a quickly expanding local arts outlet based in Hyde Park, the reading was as much event as theater; New Deal’s founder and Executive Director, Teresa Gasparini, who did double duty as the script’s Kate, says, “this public reading brought a new work to life and brought a wide range of audience members at no cost to experience this regional premiere, which sets New Deal apart from other arts organizations in the Hudson Valley.”
Vilardi has the long play in mind. She notes, “I do hope to see it on small stages, big stages and being read in people’s hands.” Tough Love is off to a rousing start. Vilardi has written a winning play with characters and storylines the audience will find both familiar and unexpected.
Ms. Vilardi is a writer and theater director originally from Northern New Jersey where she taught high school English and Creative Writing for over a decade before moving to the Hudson Valley. Louisa was formerly a resident director and producer for New Players Company (Ridgewood, NJ). She is a proud member of The Dramatist Guild of America. Her writing has been featured by The Huffington Post, Today Parenting Team and Scary Mommy.
The New Deal Creative Arts Center, founded in 2017, is a non-profit 501©3 arts organization located in Hyde Park, NY. New Deal is strongly following their mission that includes new opportunity for both artists and audiences alike. This is not a one off for the young organization as they are currently accepting new works now through November 15th for a chance to be fully produced by New Deal. More information can be found on their website: www.newdealarts.org