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What, No Mobsters? 

Italian Americans fight WWII and each other in The Sweepers.

Three Italian American housewives keep the home - fires burning during the wartime summer of 1945.
  • Three Italian American housewives keep the home fires burning during the wartime summer of 1945.
War puts a lot of stress on people. Consider the devilish decisions the rich in this country now face, with the cash from wartime tax cuts festering in their bank accounts. Should they invest in Viacom or Microsoft? Or should they just shovel more money into campaign coffers so they can get their payback the easy way -- through federally financed welfare for the wealthy? Fortunately, poorer folk don't have such daunting choices to make. Since college has been priced beyond their means, they can go stock shelves at a big box or sign up for military service.

While the burden of sacrifice was shared more evenly in World War II than it is in Iraq, poor kids still composed a hefty percentage of this country's troops. And in John C. Picardi's play The Sweepers, now at Ensemble Theatre, the focus is on a small, low-rent Italian American community in North Boston, where the women have been left alone to deal with the real stress that war creates: the fear that loved ones will end up physically maimed, emotionally scarred, or dead.

Set in the summer of 1945, Picardi's story line attempts to integrate the faraway battles and reports of an ominous new atom bomb with the more mundane concerns of three women who have grown into middle age together in their cheek-by-jowl homes. Sharing the same postage-stamp backyard, along with strict Catholic beliefs and a dedication to some antiquated rituals from the old country, these loving but feisty gals have plenty of challenges to face. Mary, stern and quick-witted, has both a husband and son in the Pacific. Sweet but slightly dim Dotty also has a son at war; her husband is shell-shocked and being treated in a Boston hospital. Only lusty, loudmouthed Bella doesn't have a family member in the conflict, since her son, Sonny, was declared 4-F due to a heart murmur. He has used this freedom to garner a law degree and an engagement to Karen, a Wellesley-educated Italian girl whose family boasts major political connections.

Picardi's script is wonderfully evocative of the time, place, and ethnic aura, and it's often quite funny, but there are serious fissures produced by melodramatic overreaching and a monomaniacal fixation on one rather strange plot point. Certainly the negative effects of war on the families of soldiers are highly emotional, which makes it all the more important that a playwright not wade casually into those wellsprings of sentiment. Unfortunately, Picardi dons his hip boots and clomps around like Gene Kelly performing "Singin' in the Pain." In the first act, we learn that Dotty's son has lost a leg and is going through rehab in California, that Bella has lost her adored brother Antonio, and that Dotty is keeping her hubby locked up because she can't deal with his neurotic twitches. This tendency toward the bathetic is redoubled in Act Two, as the tragedies mount at an alarming rate.

With all these world-shaking events taking place, the three women seem most obsessed with making sure that Karen and Sonny -- who foolishly agree to spend their wedding night in his mom's house -- display the marital bedsheet so that everyone in the neighborhood can eyeball the evidence that Karen was a virgin. According to Bella's helpful explanation of this old Italian custom, this means that the stained sheet must be "waving in the wind like a Jap flag" off the back porch. Of course, the young couple is mightily offended by this bizarre suggestion. As a minor plot point, this could have been quirky and interesting. But the playwright keeps gnawing on this silly argument throughout the play, and by the time Bella's moral hypocrisy is revealed near the end, the impact is dissipated.

Even against these obstacles, however, a splendid Ensemble cast almost pulls it off. Jean Zarzour is broad but entirely credible as Bella, bullying her family and manipulating her friends, even as she hides her own shameful secret. Her drunk scene in Act Two is woozy and wobbly, with a slicing edge. As the taciturn Mary, Meg Kelly Schroeder is steely yet warm, and she surmounts a highly unbelievable plot contortion to make her dramatically gratuitous revelation at the curtain. Tracey Field is enormously endearing as the slightly dotty Dotty, praying fervently to the statue of the Blessed Mother as she tries to keep the peace between her two pals. Mother-dominated Sonny is given a crisp portrayal by James Savage, and Jennifer Clifford is gracious but unshakable as the put-upon Karen.

Director Lucia Colombi no doubt shares the playwright's interest in presenting positive images of Italian Americans (you mean they're not all related to Paulie Walnuts?). But dialing back the more florid parts, both in words and in performance, would have served that cause better.

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