Tortured relationships between fathers and daughters are nothing new to drama. They are, of course, a more recent aspect of the canon to be explored after centuries of fathers and sons struggling to coexist. But in I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard, Halley Feiffer’s new drama at Atlantic Stage II, a destructive relationship between a playwright father and his aspiring actress daughter, are explored in great depth and detail – painfully so.
We open with David (Reed Birney) and Ella (Betty Gilpin) in the kitchen of David’s apartment awaiting the first review of a play Ella starred in. It’s an avant-garde production of The Seagull, but Ella did not play the starring role of Nina. Instead, she was cast in the supporting role of Masha.
David is an award-winning playwright who has few kind things to say about the industry, but that doesn’t stop him from wanting his daughter to succeed, right? In some ways, he reminded me of a modern-day, foul-mouthed Willy Loman struggling to remain relevant in a world that does not welcome him. He’s is an embittered, profane and disparaging man, whose damnations of everyone and everything in the industry are fueled by wine, marijuana and cocaine. His personality, as played by Birney’s excellently paced and precisely focused performance, is suffocating, and even Ella, who sits rapt in the throes of father worship for much of the first act, is affected by it.
When we meet Ella again, years later, she’s transformed, physically and emotionally, into a successful actress – take that, Dad! – but her father still haunts her. And when he shows up, painfully transformed, the confrontation between the two is inevitable; we all know it, but with these two excellent actors onstage, it’s incredibly painful to witness.
I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard is only 90 minutes, but it contains years of conflict, resentment, pain and unspoken words, and with the two excellent actors onstage, it is even more powerful.
The dynamics of fathers and daughters is rich with opportunity for drama. Let’s hope they continue to be explored in further works.