Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's recent review of Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story
In each of those scenarios, I can try to imagine how I might feel and what it would take to forgive. I could never be sure unless I faced the real situation, but I could at least conceive of how I might, under the right circumstances, be able to forgive. Five Minutes of Heaven pushes the question to the extreme: Could you forgive a total stranger who murdered your nineteen-year-old brother at point blank range, decades years ago, when you were a mere child of eleven? You saw it all. Your life has been haunted by the sight, wrenched by your loss, and burdened by your mum's irrational accusations against you for not having stopped it. Could you ever forgive the man who fired those shots?
Five Minutes of Heaven is a gripping, emotionally wrenching play being given a stellar world premiere production by Illusion Theatre. It was written by Michael Egan who also acts the part of Joe Griffin, the young witness, now a late in middle-age man, being asked to forgive. The play is adapted from a screenplay by Guy Hibbert for a 2009 film by the same name, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. The film was made to be aired on British television, though it was screened at the Sundance Festival where it won awards for direction and screenwriting. With two prominent actors, Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt, in the leads, it ought to have received some traction in the States but failed to do so.
Egan has condensed the 90-minute film into a taut 75-minute-long one-act. It starts, as does the film, in Northern Ireland back in the 1975, the violent period called "the troubles," with Catholics rallying behind the Irish Republican Army (IRA) waging war in the streets against Protestants who unite under the banner of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). Our view alternates between young Joe Griffin, a Catholic lad, idly practicing shots with a soccer ball outside his house, and seventeen-year-old Alistair Little (Pearce Bunting), describing the carnage he sees all around him and the irresistible urge to join up with the UVF and repay the IRA devils with his own hands. As he puts it, you don't think, in those circumstances, about how they may have suffered, only about your own suffering and loss–and hate. They count for nothing more than a target for your hostility.
Alistair is delighted to be given a job by the UVF–to shoot a young Catholic man named Jim Griffin, just for the "crime" of being a Catholic, and to serve as a caution to the IRA. He is apprehended and serves time in prison, which affords him the opportunity to repent for his actions. Upon his release he writes about his transformation and becomes a noted author, public speaker, and professional "peace maker."
Forty-five years later, the producer of an American reality television show called "One on One" has the idea of bringing Jim and Alistair together for the first time, so that Alistair can make his apology directly to Jim and Jim can publicly forgive his tormentor. That's the idea, anyway. Both men agree to appear on the show, but when the day arrives, both are very nervous. Alistair has lived racked with guilt. He knows that making peace with the victim of his own acts is a far cry from acting as a third party, counseling others to resolve their conflicts. Jim knows he will face the man he blames for sentencing him to a failed life. He does not understand how he can be expected to forgive.
The producer (Laura Esping) offers glib words of comfort and reassurance to both gentlemen, but spews them out with an aggressive authority that speaks not of concern for either Alistair or Jim, but for making compelling television. The handsome interview host (Ansa Akyea) has the intelligent, well-spoken demeanor of someone well-skilled with words, though he may be out of his element with feelings. A kind production assistant (Shana Berg) is the most open of the lot, genuinely feeling Alistair's jangled nerves and Jim's morbid self-deprecation. We sense that she fears nothing good will come of this but does not have a capacity to intervene.
All five actors are exquisite, each projecting the part they play in this madly conceived exercise that attempts to transform the vicious past that weighs down the hearts not only these two men, but of two entire communities, into a feel-good moment, a jolt for the ratings. Egan, as Joe Griffin, is especially compelling. He never suggests the slightest hint of being an actor on stage, only a man who suffered a life-altering tragedy, and who has been drafted into an international spotlight beyond his ken. Nearly matching him in power is Bunting's portrayal of Alistair Little. His sturdy, solemn exterior expresses painfully earned wisdom, while serving as a shield for the unresolved miasma of pain that is his constant companion. Esping is perfect as the driven producer, Akyea captures the essence of every glib television interviewer I've ever seen, and Berg conveys tenderness, insightful but lacking agency, as the production assistant.
Robins has directed the show with a loving hand, never backing away from the fierce elements, but ensuring that we feel the humanity that animates both Alistair and Jim. All design elements are effective, appropriately taking a backseat to the stark drama. Eric D. Howell, credited as film and video coordinator, has assembled evocative footage depicting both the violence and the weariness of those on both sides of who lived through that long, dark, recent past. Howell also served as the production's fight coordinator, demonstrating skill in that regard as well.
There is truth to the opening part of Five Minutes of Heaven, in that both Alistair Little and Jim Griffin were real people (were, because as noted in the program, Jim Griffin passed away on June 1 of this year). Alistair Little did kill Jim Griffin's brother, serving twelve years in prison for his crime, and Jim did see his brother being shot. Little did indeed emerge from prison as a man of peace, and wrote a book, "Give a Boy a Gun: One Man's Journey from Killing to Peace-Making," published in 2009, the same year the film came out. In developing his screenplay, Guy Hibbert interviewed both men separately, but there was never a plan to bring the two together. That aspect of the play (and film) is pure speculation. In that speculation we are challenged to consider the potential for humankind to move beyond reflexive revenge and achieve forgiveness based on an understanding of the demons that drive those on both sides of any dividing line.
One caution, if you go–and by all means, you should–be prepared to listen closely to get past the strong Irish accents in Alistair Little's and Jim Griffin's speech. Actors Egan and Bunting do extremely well by their accents, which means having to attune to the tones and the lilt employed. I found after the first five minutes or so that I had gotten beyond that interference and could fully follow along with both characters through the remainder of the play. Believe me, the effort is well worth it.
Five Minutes of Heaven deals with a tragic, hateful time in the past, in one small corner of the world, but tragic, hateful episodes seem to reliably erupt in many places, and at many times, and so the piece is far from mired in history. It raises powerful questions regarding the value, and the satisfaction to be had, in forgiveness, or, for that matter in exacting revenge. What are the possibilities for moving beyond that crossroads? In a production that could not possibly be improved, this is a play that demands our attention.
Five Minutes of Heaven runs through October 23, 2022, at Illusion Theater, Center for Performing Arts, 3754 Pleasant Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: Name Your Price tickets, starting at $5.00, suggested fair market price, $35.00. For tickets and information, please call 612-339-4944 or visit illusiontheater.org.
Playwright: Michael Egan, adapted from an original screenplay by Guy Hibbert; Director: Michael Robins; Scenic Design: Michael Hoover; Costume Design: Amber Brown; Lighting Design: Garvin Jellison; Film and Video Consultant: Eric D. Howell; Props Coordinator: Ursula K. Bowden; Fight Coordinator: Eric D. Howell; Stage Manager: Tree O'Halloran.
Cast: Ansa Akyea (David), Shana Berg (Vika), Pearce Bunting (Alistair Little), Michael Egan (Joe Griffin), Laura Esping (Michelle),