John Patrick Shanley's "Italian American Reconciliation" continues through March 8. Photo: The Box Theater

Love, Italian-American Style

By John Quinn

If we were to believe poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Miles Standish, military advisor to the Plymouth Colony, was smitten with the lovely Pilgrim maid, Pricilla Mullen. Rather than woo her himself, he sent his roommate, John Alden, to speak to her on his behalf. Bad move. John also loves Pricilla and the love triangle takes some familiar turns.

While there are elements in common between "The Courtship of Miles Standish" and John Patrick Shanley's "Italian American Reconciliation," the latter turns the Puritan sensibilities of the narrative poem into broad comedy. In performance at The Box Theater in Mt. Clemens, "Reconciliation" is a light-hearted look at loves lost and won.

Our narrator is Aldo Scalicki (Casey Hibbert), who declares that his life-long friend, Huey Maximilian Bonfigliano (Jeremy Strebendt), is "kidnapped by his past." He's adapted a Byron-like angst, writing grim poetry inspired by his ex-wife, Janice (Diana Turner). Janice is a sorry source for artistic endeavor; a tart-tongued shrew, she not only shot Huey's dog but went gunning for Huey before her zip gun blew up. Huey's found a new love, Theresa (Amanda Sayers), but feels he can't move on without closure. He must re-woo and win Janice in a sort of masochistic do-over. Huey is meek beyond scriptural standards, and is likely to inherit nothing but a heap of grief. He sends Aldo to soften Janice up. Aldo's the perfect choice; he feels society has ruined women, and that love simply can't be found.

The plot for "Italian American Reconciliation" is a mere trifle. What is magic is John Patrick Shanley's spin on the theme. He's the Academy Award winner for the screenplay of "Moonstruck" and Tony Award winner for "Doubt: A Parable." Shanley writes bright, almost poetic, dialogue, and possesses rare insight into the net that holds ethnic groups together.

Holding on to tradition is natural in ethnic enclaves; so why, specifically, is this play about an "Italian American" reconciliation? Shanley, with the exception of Aldo, generally avoids broad stereotypes, but he gives his characters a little New York Italian trait - they unabashedly speak their mind. They share a brutal honesty that makes for fine comedy. We may assume, given his surname, that director John Forlini is not unfamiliar with the nuances of Italian American culture. He has used that experience to take the raw honesty of the script and honed it into honest, convincing performances from his cast.

As Aldo, Casey Hibbert portrays the "Guido" image with flare, but betrays his character's inner emptiness. Something of a caricature, Aldo is all brass plate hiding a tarnished heart. In contrast, Jeremy Strebendt skillfully turns in a painfully withdrawn Huey, terribly conflicted in his love-hate relationship not only with his ex, but with his new girl.

The "girls" are a study in contrasts; Amanda Sayers plays an indecisive Theresa as sweetly as Pricilla Mullen could, while Diana Turner's Janice is reminiscent of Katherine in "The Taming of the Shrew." She's done with love because it came without respect. Her crazy behavior is a bid for attention, and Turner deftly plays both faces.

The keys to happiness are in the hands of Theresa's wise, wise-cracking Aunt May, played by Lynn Anderson. Given some of the wittiest lines in the play, Anderson gets a lot of the laughs - well earned.

For a play that seems light and a little silly, "Italian American Reconciliation" serves up some basic truths of the human condition. Warm and sweet, with just a hint of bitterness, it's as comforting as hot chocolate.

'Italian American Reconciliation'

The Box Theater, 90 Macomb Place, Mount Clemens. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, plus 2 p.m. March 2 through March 8. 1 hour, 35 minutes. $16-18. 586-954-2677.

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