A few days after Christmas, I was invited to a private screening of a film adaptation of a play written by Cleveland playwright Christopher Johnston. It was the first time the actors, director, producers and the writer watched it as it was meant to be viewed.
During Mary’s opening monologue, we see her rising slowly away. Christopher uses that to symbolize that she is being taken from us, without defining whether it’s from disease or dementia, and how Mary and her family deal with it.
This is one of the most powerful films I have ever seen. The writing, the acting , the entire production holds you captive. The film will be shown locally this month. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
I spoke with Christopher and Lara Mielcarek, who plays the part of Mary, to get their thoughts and feelings about the film.
Christopher is a freelance journalist, author, teacher and playwright. He has published more than four thousand articles in numerous publications and has twenty plays that have made it to production and is well known and received in Cleveland theatre.
How did your play turn into a film instead of a stage production?
We did the first reading in 2016, and then I wrote some revisions and we did another reading just before everything shut down from the pandemic. Dave Thomas obtained some funding from Mike Coyne and we decided to film it. Mike is on the board of The Irish Charitable Foundation and Dave’s a film producer and they felt it had merit to move forward.
The setting for the film is in The Burren in the West of Ireland. What made you choose that as the location for the story?
A couple of reasons, my maternal grandmother was from Clare and I had been there many years ago; I was struck by it. I liked the possibilities it presented because it is so isolated and desolate for the most part. It gave me freedom to not have too many characters, just the people who come to visit her, the priest and her family.
It’s an ancient place, with a connection to the early celts and druids. There is a lot of history there that I was able to incorporate with the priest having an archaeology background.
I was trying to connect all of that because I felt that this could happen there. I remember what it did to me and I was just out of college then. Barb’s character (Frand) introduces a lot of that pagan history as well.
Paganism to Christianity
Ireland is special with it’s evolution of paganism into Christianity, so I was able to interweave the two. With Barb’s, Kelly’s and Nicholas’s characters, I was able to bring a lighter moment to it, because it’s such a dark, heavy theme and progression. This allowed me to bring in some almost comical characters and add a little bit of lightness, but also show her spirituality and what she believes that reflects that pagan past of Ireland.
Is that important to you, to include Irish culture and folklore in your writing?
Yes, very much; I feel very close to my Irish roots. My father’s family came to America in 1640, so they are quintessentially American. My mother’s family was from France and Ireland, and her mother was from Ireland. My grandmother was a big part of our family and lived with us the last ten years of her life. So, I’ve always felt much closer to that part of my heritage.
I wrote a childrens play “Finn McCool” that was performed at Tailspinner Children’s Theatre, because she had told us that story when we were kids. I identify with that part of my heritage because of her. I’ve written several Irish plays, we did one at Cleveland Public Theatre back in 2006, “The Mad Mask Maker of Maigh Eo.”
I love Irish literature and Irish theatre, there’s such rich heritage there, I want to tap into it whenever I can. This was a great opportunity. I could have set this play in America I suppose, but I felt this gave it a more magical, spiritual moment.
Alison Garrigan, the dialect coach, did an amazing job, meeting the cast before we watched the film and then hearing them in character, there was a disconnect for me. I never thought of Mary as anyone else but Mary, even though I was sitting near Lara as we watched.
I can’t thank everyone enough, they put so much work into this. They rehearsed by Zoom because everything was shut down. Alison coached everyone by Zoom, individually and together and into rehearsals to keep them sharp. She’s incredible, it’s a huge part of her background to do dialects and coach others. They worked so hard before we even set foot in the theatre.
Where was the film shot?
We were able to get into the Dobama Theatre and use it as a black box base because Dobama wasn’t doing anything because of the shut down. We were able to film it over a week or so.
Everyone put so much work and love into it. This also gave everyone a chance to work at their craft in the theatre and do a play or film. It was a great experience for all of us.
Do you see this as going to the stage?
I hope so, we’re exploring possibilities. I wasn’t sure when I wrote it what it would look like to have Mary elevated. This was a little easier because you can use the film to make it look different; on stage you can’t do that.
She was on a platform even in rehearsals and everyone bought into it. It’s the magic of theatre and the suspension of disbelief. I think it would be beautiful on stage.
It’s such a strong story, so many of us have been through something like it in one way or another.
I didn’t want this to be a soap opera with a hospital bed, but, I wanted to replicate that experience. How everyone from Mary to her family and the others come to terms with it. That disconnect that comes when losing a loved one without making it about cancer or something.
I’m just over the moon about the cast and the job they did, it made me very proud and very happy. Anne was a wonderful director, I felt very confident that I could just hand it to her, she did a fabulous job with minimal resources. Jackson Goldberg, (filmmaker) did an amazing job, he shot and edited the film. I can’t thank everyone involved enough.
Lara is one of Clevelands top actors. At her young age, she already has an impressive resume. She has played over a dozen of Shakespeare’s leading ladies and has been a core member of the Ohio Shakespeare Festival since 2006. She holds her MFA in Acting from Penn State and her BFA from Kent State.
Favorite non- Shakespeare roles include Aphra Behn in OR, Anne Sullivan In Miracle Worker and Josie in Moon for the Misbegotten. She has numerous directing credits as well.
Lara also runs a volunterr program out of NERC (the women’s prison) called ARC (Artists’ Rehabilitation Coalition), where the inmates perform in condensed versions of Shakespeare’s plays. She teaches at St. Ignatius High School and hopes to develop a drama class there next year.
You first read for this in 2016?
Yeah! A real long time ago. I’ve known Chris for a long time. When I was an undergrad, I was part of the group that started the Convergence Continuum Theatre in Tremont and Chris was always there in the audience. I knew he was a playwright, but I wasn’t really familiar with his work, and then he sent this play to me.
I loved it, I can be kinda mean about playwrights and writing in general. I love classical theatre, like Shaw and Shakespeare.
A lot of contemporary plays I read now, you get to the end and go, “Where’s Act 2?” But I loved this script, I didn’t know what it was going to feel like on me, because at the time I was thirty-five years old and it felt like the character should be older. I think because, when I first read it , it seemed like it was someone with dementia.
My mother died at the end of 2016 and towards the end, she got further and further away from us. There were times when I would think, “Oh, I’ve had my last conversation with her.”
Maybe that experience helped me a little bit, but I still didn’t think I was old enough for the part. We did the reading in 2016, the way a reading usually goes for actors is you don’t really prepare very much because you’re in rehearsals for something else or you’re working on something and then you get a call for a reading, so you read it once and then you go and read it outloud in front of an audience.
It’s very sad, but it had such an impact on the audience, we were like “Holy ****! We must really have something!” It felt so different to read it and get myself absorbed in it. Then I forgot about, and then there we were five years later.
Chris was talking to people and the plan was to put it up as a play. We talked about how that would be done with scaffolds or hydraulics or whatever, and then of course, the pandemic hit. We rehearsed the whole thing over Zoom, which was tricky but fine.
We were all so thrilled to be working on it as artists. Filming…, I’ll skip ahead and say I was shocked at how well it turned out. I don’t think any of us are film people. I don’t normally do anything that goes on film, I’m a live theatre person.
Whatever they captured was it. You know in the theatre you have a night, you just go,”Oh, that’s how tonight went.” But you have another twelve times you’re going to do it and another twelve sets of eyes on it. So it was scary, knowing that that was it, it’s permanent.
We didn’t have a lot of time or resources, so we shot it pretty quick, I think we did almost all of the scenes in one take. We were in this blacked out theatre, I’m on a scaffold and thinking “How are we going to pull this off?”
Going to see it that night, I was mortified, I hate watching myself. It was such a small group, I don’t think I’ve ever been more shocked. As I watched, I let that go and enjoyed it immensely. I thought it was so well done considering the resources and the time we were in, it really worked.
“The Ascension of Mary Mulligan” was written by Chris Johnston, Directed by Anne McEvoy, Produced by Dave Thomas and Mike Coyne, with Lara Mielcarek as Mary Mulligan, John Busser as Riley Mulligan, Sarah Blubaugh as Mairsil Mulligan, Bob Goddard as Declan Mulligan, Sean Seibert as Fr. Fitzgerald, Barb Dragony as Fand, Kelly Strand as Ishleen, Nicholas Chokam as Ardan.
Additional Recording of Declan Mulligan by Chris D’Amico, Dialect coach Alison Garrigan, Tecnical adviser Marcus Dana, Filmmaker and editing by Jackson Goldberg, Ancient Celtic Music Singers Clare Martin & Rosemary Heredos
Showing March 11 at The Treelawn Social Club in Waterloo Arts District 6pm
(The producers hope to add another date and location). thetreelawn.com. Check www.iIrish.us for updates on additional shows as they are scheduled, including Dancing at Lughnasa, directed by Lara. For tickets, click, or copy and paste the link below: https://case.edu/maltzcenter/upcoming-events/cwru-department-theater/dancing-lughnasa. Andrew McManus will be performing before many of the performances.