‘Unreconciled’ at Chester: A Powerful One Man Show

Jay Sefton in Unreconciled

Unreconciled: A Fine Team Effort in Chester

In this, Chester Theatre’s 35th season, the company hit a new high for me, with a truly resonant and emotional performance of ‘Unreconciled,” the story of a young man’s struggles with an abusive Catholic priest and what it does to his life. It was because of its star, who held our attention throughout, and the strong production qualities like the lighting and video that drove home the unfortunate message.

Jay Sefton, who lives in Easthampton, is the man who wrote the play with Mark Basquill and stars.  But it’s way more than a one-man show because of Jay’s ability to quickly morph into his father Joe, using the omnipresent cigarette and the spot-on Philly accent to become his dad.  He plays the stuffy priest perfectly, with an upturned snout and haughty demeanor. He plays the part of the court-appointed woman psychiatrist by pulling back his hair, intermingling this with another character who carelessly lets his cellphone ring during their meeting to ‘reconcile’ all of this with young Jay.

I wondered to myself how Sefton could have possibly memorized the 75-minute script, with the long statements the emotional agony and the number of improvised characters…then I remembered he wrote the script.  That’s the second-best thing to prompts from other actors, I guess.

But while ‘Unreconciled’ was a one-man show, it was a solid group effort. There were aspects of this performance by the technical crew that stood out, especially James McNamara’s lighting design.  At one point, the entire house is flooded with light, (and there is no intermission)  it’s as if it’s intermission, but it’s only a brief dramatic pause.  The set is sparse, we see a 1980s-vintage fat TV and a chalkboard that places us in one of the classrooms of Jay’s Philadelphia catholic elementary school.

Lights on top and bottom of this wide chalkboard are used to punctuate and enhance the drama. At one point Jay is speaking at the far left of the stage and the spotlight stays trained both on him and on the 2018 he wrote in chalk on the board. Set and Projections Designer Nick Hussong added several interesting elements to flesh out the scenes.

A clever use of grainy VHS tape showing scenes from the actual passion play from 1985, is used sparingly to set the scene. During the talkback, an audience member asked Jay if they got permission to use the old tape, which Jay said had been in his possession for decades. A shrug was the answer, but it was immaterial as the others were not identified except for a schoolmate of Jay’s who committed suicide after the trauma. Later on we see a clip of Joe’s beloved Eagles scoring a touchdown against the Giants, on that school TV on stage.

Most of us know the story of what happened in so many of our country’s Catholic schools and churches back in the olden days. This was when Father Smith was a regular dinner guest of Jay’s family.  No one was concerned when the frisky old priest wanted to wrestle with Jay out of sight of the others, or that he consumed so much booze that he stunk. Nobody batted much of an eye when the same Father was taking the boys to a hot tub on the Jersey Shore where bathing suits were banned.

The lookback story revolves around Jay’s acceptance of the role of Jesus in the famous Passion Play when he was in 8th grade back in 1985.  For every performance Jay shares that the Priest for some reason had to put on the diaper so he would look like Jesus on the cross. We can see how uncomfortable it must have been for the young teen, up close with the alcoholic breath of the creepy priest. Years later when Jay finally grew up and left Philly, it was an email from his father Joe of a newspaper story about the abuse claims that brought this all back to life.

Despite being somewhat dismissive of Jay’s claims as a youngster, Dad swings into action when he realizes what has happened and the church begins reaching out to victims with their well-organized teams of lawyers and counselors. They were ready to fight back.  Jay carries a letter on stage with him at the beginning and at the end its sorry contents are revealed.

The play then takes an interesting turn…we return to the same dialogue and scene that we started with, with Jay explaining what it was like to work in a restaurant and want to go home, repeating several pages of the same lines from 75 minutes earlier. We have come full circle with Jay, and at the end text on the stage explains the way the Philadelphia Diocese managed to settle all of these sexual abuse claims by paying out millions less than they had budgeted.

‘Unreconciled’ sparkles, Jay is on top of the dialogue and rips between the characters admirably. It was a fun treat to enjoy a 2 pm matinee on a Friday, an innovation at Chester and a good idea that I hope other companies will consider.

‘Unreconciled’ by Jay Sefton and Mark Basquill at the Chester Theatre Company, directed by James Barry.  Performances Sat 7/6 at 7:30 pm, Sun 7/7 at 2 pm, Thursday 7/11 7:30 pm Friday 7/12 2 pm and 7:30 pm. Tickets