On 16 December 1960, two planes collided above New York. One landed in Staten Island, the other in Brooklyn. The latter became known as the Park Slope plane crash, which killed 134 people. Stories such as this are tragic, and we recognise them as such, but we don’t often stop to think about the individual, ordinary lives that these events affect, and in ways sometimes unexpected. Meghan Kennedy’s Napoli, Brooklyn imagines those lives: in this case the lives of a catholic Italian-American family living in Brooklyn. Nic (Robert Cavanah) and Luda (Madeleine Worrall) emigrated from Naples decades ago; now, with three young daughters (no sons, to Nic’s dismay) they find their lives turned upside down after the crash tests their weak spots.
The first act charts the events in the run up to the crash. Nic is abusive, sexist, sadistic, racist, and an alcoholic, and rules over the home, his wife and their daughters with an iron fist. Tina (Mona Goodwin), the eldest daughter, left school early to take a manual labour job. Francesca (Hannah Bristow), the youngest daughter, is struggling with her sexuality and growing romance with best friend Connie (Laurie Ogden), while middle child Vita (Georgia May Foote) is brave and wields a sharp tongue – one that got her a beating from her father so severe that she was hospitalised. Foote plays her with verve and tenacity, with a love for Camus and unapologetic lust for life. Even after falling victim to a violent attack when protecting her sister, she, incredibly, remains a breath of fresh air.
The second act begins after the plane crash, after which life, of course, has irreversibly changed. It’s here that the play really explodes during a scene at dinner on Christmas Day. We’ve all had a barney with an Uncle who’s got too drunk over the holidays, but this is something else. Startlingly strong performances are given by the three daughters, Bristow in particular, as Francesca breaks free from her fear and finally confronts her father.
However, Kennedy’s writing is at its most observant, most impressive, when charting the internal struggle of Nic. Now, more than ever, girls like Vita are learning their worth, and often passing that knowledge up to their mothers. Vita tells Luda “you are not a stupid woman, don’t act like one.” What follows is the inevitable clash of old-school ideas of masculinity and new wave feminism. In a world like this, there is no way for men like Nic to exist alongside women like Vita. It’s something that Luda must realise, and watching that unravel is heart-breaking, thanks to Worral, Cavanah and Foote’s desperate performances.
Aside from the dodgy accents (both the Brooklyn and native Italian accents are sadly butchered, but like most bad accents, we quickly get used to it), Worral’s comical caricature of an Italian mother, and a very basic set that leaves a lot to be desired, Napoli, Brooklyn has much to offer us. Lisa Blair’s warm production celebrates women finding their way, which is always a joy to watch.
Napoli, Brooklyn is playing the Park Theatre until 13 July. For more information and tickets, visit the Park Theatre website.