If you’re lucky enough to come from an Italian-American family born and bred in one of New York City’s boroughs, let nostalgia alone drive you to The Witch on St. Elmora Street. And if you aren’t one of the chosen few with a last name that ends in a vowel and strong opinions about the distinction between Italians and Sicilians, then come for the talent. Written by Joey Merlo, the play brings to life an Italian-American family in the 1980’s. With their bold outer borough accents, rampant drama, and wacky superstitions that you’d be too afraid to entirely disbelieve, this family is at once crazy and all too real.
The Witch on St. Elmora Street begins with the backstory of the family, whose surname is never given. That backstory comes from the deceased patriarch, who speaks to the audience from beyond the grave in the form of a tomato plant. It sounds ridiculous but is later explained by the children – after their father died, a tomato plant grew in his garden that they took to be a sign of him watching over them.
So from the very beginning, the roots of this play are founded in a deeply ingrained, almost religious superstition that borders on magical realism. In the press release, in fact, Merlo says he was inspired by his own family. “I remember my family telling me this bizarre story about a woman who was involved with dark magic. It was almost Shakespearean.” But despite the larger-than-life presence of witchcraft, omens, and more, what is really so touching about this play is that the story is ultimately driven by the choices of the characters themselves, not by any mysterious forces.
Graziella and Michelangelo (or Micky) are twins and the show’s two main characters. Like many other elements of the story, their very conception was the work of magic – specifically a magic cow who, by giving birth to twins, ensured that everyone on Elmora Street that year also had twins. At the ages of 26, they find themselves heartbroken at the same time: Grazi’s fiancé has run away with Micky’s wife.
Amidst the heartbreak are hilariously over-the-top scenes of passion and an intriguing flashback that involves an onstage, cast-wide costume change choreographed to flashing colored lights and eerie music reminiscent of Sleep No More. Everything about this play is eye-catching: not just the characters’ antics, but the ingenious set composed of chicken wire and Christmas lights. And beneath the surface, reminding us that this isn’t a comedy no matter how much you may be laughing, is a quiet tragedy: the misdiagnosis of mental illness as nothing more than being “not normal.” This subtle but vital message, at times overshadowed by impassioned bellowing familiar to any Italian-American family and a criminal overuse of the word “youse,” is what gives this play its truly Shakespearean ending.
Despite some scenes that tend to drag a little, The Witch of St. Elmora Street is packed with an impressive cast who bring to life characters utterly alive and sympathetic. Completely at home in their sometimes outrageous, sometimes sobering characters, it seemed to me that every actor gave their all, not least of which being Caitlin Zoz and Chris Dunlop starring as Graziella and Michelangelo. Joey Merlo’s creation is both a touching homage to the stranger elements of Italian-American culture and a story of love, heartbreak, and family. It’s worth a visit to the neighborhood if you’re even just slightly curious.
- By Joey Merlo
- Directed by Emilyn Kowaleski
- Cast includes: Caitlin Zoz, Chris Dunlop, Vanessa Koppel, Chinaza Uche, Nathaniel Peart, Nicole Pursell, Enzo Ferrante
- Access Theater, New York City
- Until 18 December 2016
- Review by Austin Fimmano
- 4 December 2016