The hour grows late on a school night and Billie worries because Sara, her teenage daughter, hasn’t returned home from a Christmas play rehearsal. Her husband Frank reassures her, telling her not to worry.
“She has a crush on Jesus,” Frank says, referring to an actor in the play. “Man, what do we do if Jesus knocks her up?”
Frank’s humor abruptly halts when news of their youngest daughter is revealed. Through a number of brief scenes that play out like snapshots lifted from a catalog of nightmarish memories, Frank and Billie learn their daughter has been raped and murdered by a 16-year-old student.
The plot of the Detroit Repertory Theatre’s latest production, Unspoken Prayers, may sound like ample fodder for a Lifetime original movie, but rest assured it is anything but. The 90-minute production packs a punch that can be felt in the gut but steers clear of melodrama. Aside from addressing the emotional issues involved with the death of a daughter, the play delves into the intellectual, asking the question: How should the family deal with her killer?
Themes of justice and revenge are explored as the family decides how heavily they think Sara’s attacker should be prosecuted in a state that allows the death penalty. Frank, overcome with anger and rage, believes wholeheartedly in the death sentence. His surviving daughter, Becca, a liberal college student, firmly opposes it. Billie finds herself caught in the middle.
Playwright Claudia Allen, a Michigan native who now resides in Chicago, weaves together a compelling story that dissects a topical issue from a variety of angles. Though Allen makes a strong case for both sides, it’s clear by the end of her play exactly where she stands. Her conclusion on the death penalty finds unexpected relevance in a play about family ties.
Ostensibly, the play is about the fate of Sara’s killer, but the audience never is introduced to him. Instead, the gritty and realistic script focuses on the dilemmas faced by his indirect victims. The scenes shift between family debates and interactions with the outside world — members of the apathetic media and the conversely passionate district attorney.
From time to time, a posthumous Sara appears. The scenes never sink into sentimental flashbacks; instead they play out as part of the present. A particularly gut-wrenching interchange involves Billie, played with force by Detroit acting vet Leah Smith, confronting her deceased daughter with a stream of ugly expletives. It’s the kind of dialogue that’s uncomfortable to hear, but hits dead-on.
Ebony McClain’s performance as Sara underscores the youthful exuberance of a teenager. The fact that her ghostlike presence brims with life makes for moments of acute poignancy, especially in scenes involving Becca, played by My-Ishia Cason-Brown. Dancing around her old bedroom, Sara’s silly attempts to make her older sister laugh are moving. When Becca reads Sara’s diary aloud, the feeling is pronounced.
Meanwhile the father, played by Harold Hogan (who most recently appeared in the Rep’s The Drawer Boy), has little interaction with Sara, if any, concentrating instead on seeking justice in court. Or, as Becca asks, is it revenge that he’s after?
As the moral debate heats up, Becca and Frank go head to head in what Billie calls a game of “dueling Bibles.” “An eye for an eye,” Franks quotes. “Turn the other cheek,” Becca replies.
Hogan’s performance is especially complex. On the one hand, Frank ponders how he can rest knowing that the killer is sleeping in jail while his daughter is sleeping in the ground. On the other hand, he’s reluctant to turn his home into a battleground and to let his anger transform him.
While Frank and Becca remain steadfast, the journey most central to the play is that of Billie, who must come to a conclusion on her own. Her quest leads to an unlikely encounter and a new perspective that neither husband nor daughter had considered. The revelatory scenes introduce Edna, played matter-of-factly by Charlotte Leisinger, and her son Big Bob, played by an aptly subdued Chuck Reynolds. It’s here the script truly shines.
Unspoken Prayers plays through June 27 at the Detroit Repertory Theatre, located at 13103 Woodrow Wilson in Detroit. Curtain times are 8:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 3 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. General admission is $17. For tickets, call 313-868-1347.Ronit Feldman is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org