Reviewed by Michael J. Opperman
In 1858, under Papist rule, Edgardo Mortara is taken from his Jewish parents to the House of Catechumens in Rome. At the time, Papal law forbid the raising of a Christian by Jews. Edgardo was a Christian only because of a haphazard baptism by the Catholic servant of his Jewish family. This is the triggering incident of Alfred Uhry's Edgardo Mine.
The greatest difficulty surrounding the Guthrie Theater production is determining exactly what it is. The play as an exploration of this wrenching incident is fundamentally a tragedy. Based on the 1850's Mortara Case and adapted from David Ketzer's The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, this is not the material of comedy. Unfortunately, Uhry introduces elements of domestic drama and even farce into the events. What begins as a performance of the deepest pathos evolves into a befuddling mix of comedy and melodrama.
Opening with the night of Edgardo's baptism, the play introduces the audience to Momolo Mortara (Ron Menzel) and Marianna Mortara (Jennifer Regan), as well as Nina Morisi (Nancy Rodriguez), the Catholic servant who sets the unfortunate events into motion. The set is sparse and affecting. White columns rise from the floor and shadows follow the actors about the stage. Momolo and Marianna are anxious over Edgardo's health - he is struggling under an illness and signs of recovery are few. Nina, during the night, worries over Edgardo's future beyond death and baptizes him as a Catholic to ensure his place in heaven. The success of this scene lay in Uhry's ability to succinctly depict the intersection of faith and its itinerant results. Both the Mortaras and Nina petition God for Edgardo's recovery. Edgardo lives and Nina believes her baptism to be the stuff of miracles.
Years go by before this baptism is brought to the attention of the Catholic Church - before Edgardo's religious status becomes international contention. An element of comedy intrudes with the introduction of Pope Pius IX (Brian Murray). His pope is a compelling amalgam of the worldly and the parochial. Though initially strange against the backdrop of the contretemps, the character's humor is fitting as a luxury of the powerful. The comedy attempted through the domestic drama of Momolo and Marianna is less successful, ringing dull and wrong.
In the attention to their relationship and to the sexual experiences of Nina, the focus on Edgardo and the intersection of belief is reduced. Nina's faith is unfairly mitigated by her desires and Marianna's engaging - but confusing - development as a woman independent of her husband are too thinly explored to be considered subplots. At the same time, too much time is spent for these concerns to be dismissed.
As the second act pulled toward the end, I wondered whether the play should be longer or shorter. World affairs and even a miscalculated allusion to the Holocaust are pushed into the play in the second act. These references simplify historical moments, flattening the confluence of actors and events into a unified response to the kidnapping and 'conversion' of Edgardo Mortara. The strength of Uhry's play is in a familial immediacy - both Jewish and Catholic. Both Edgardo's parents and Pope Pius IX (however racist) are invested in Edgardo's development and soul - the paradox of this catastrophe is what drives the play. Attempting to reconfigure the tragedy as a tragicomedy (without the happy ending) is ill considered.
Alfred Uhry started his theatrical career as a lyric writer, making his Broadway debut with Here's Where I Belong in 1968. An adaptation of Eudora Welty's The Robber Bridegroom, and his first play Driving Miss Daisy followed. The Park Square Theater mounted a successful production of his Last Night of Ballyhoo several years ago. Edgardo Mine represents an ambitious - and disappointing - departure from his previous work.