Theatre Review: Mercy and the Firefly by Amy Hartman

Reviewed by Michael Simms

Lucy Clark, a nun who teaches in East Los Angeles, returns to Homestead, Pennsylvania, having kidnapped fifteen year-old Mercy Rivera whom she believes is in danger after witnessing a murder. Lucy’s old boyfriend Oliver and her mother Vivian reluctantly take in the girl. What ensues is a four-way struggle for power in an upside-down world where drug dealers rule the streets and adults are terrified of children. In fact, these people are afraid of everything, having forgotten even the simple goodness of food and human touch. All the characters are adept liars and manipulators, drug addicts and alcoholics, users in every sense of the word. In this harsh world, tenderness is interpreted as weakness, dreams are mocked and punished, and love is only for suckers.

The names are ironic. Lucy, who has forgotten how to pray, has lost her light. Vivian, whose name means Life, regularly volunteers as a cook making last meals for the condemned — “waking them up before they die” as her daughter puts it. Oliver Hill, despite his pastoral-sounding name, lives in an urban wasteland. And Mercy, well, has none. Life — as they know it — is nasty, brutish, and short. So, it’s a surprise – and a relief — that by the end of the play, each of the characters has wrestled his or her stubborn demon to a tenuous draw.

Amy Hartman is arguably the best playwright working today. Her dialogue snaps with poetry, a rhapsodic vernacular that sings the desperate lyricism of the dispossessed. The ghost of a murdered girl opens the play with a rap song, and as she haunts Mercy, who as it turns out, is a soldier in the LA gang wars, Mercy’s language slides into a rhyming ode to the violence of the streets. In a spell-binding performance, Chelsea Mervis brings out the contradiction of a violent manipulative girl who is also a victim of a world gone crazy. Shammen McCune as Lucy captures the character’s confusion in her search for faith and love. Penelope Lindblom interprets Vivian – perhaps the most sympathetic of the characters — as a tough old broad who’s going to survive no matter what. And Patrick Jordan’s pitch-perfect portrayal of the weak and vacillating Oliver rounds out the strong cast.

Melissa Martin’s direction is subtle and competent, letting the actors and the dialogue carry the play without impediment. Stephanie Mayer-Staley, the scenic designer, has divided the stage between two locations – a rubbish-strewn lot and a low-rent apartment, providing the perfect setting for the post-apocalyptic story. Costume designer Michael Montgomery, lighting designer Andrew David Ostrowski, and sound designer Steve Shapiro contribute to a powerful production of a beautiful play.

“Mercy and the Firefly,” by Amy Hartman, is at The Pittsburgh Playhouse’s Studio Stage (222 Craft Avenue, Oakland. 412/ 392-8000 or online at from April 1 to April 17, 2011


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