It’s not everyone that can survive an unfortunate childhood. A suffocating home life under the unpredictable rule of a father with paranoid schizophrenia, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and a fondness for binges of alcohol creates an unsafe environment for all involved. Through it all, Thomas Sweitzer can’t say he didn’t have love though. His mother, a morbidly obese diabetic with smoker’s cough and a weak heart, adored her son. She was his champion, his confidante, and his best friend on earth. Together they decamped to a fleabag motel every weekend. It was their safe haven while Tommy’s father went off on a self-destructive bender in the house. They would return the next day to his utter chaos.
It’s best not to expect that all angels have wings…you just might miss one. For young Tommy, an angel came in the guise of an elderly Sunday school teacher at The Second Avenue United Methodist Church in Altoona, Pennsylvania, right across the street from the Sweitzer home. Erdean Grissinger was the textbook 1970’s Sunday school teacher in a three-piece skirt suit, cat-eye glasses and a bouffant that probably made her appear a solid foot taller than she was. This angel on earth opened the door to the church and to a world of solace beyond young Tom’s imaginings. The church’s bells couldn’t possibly prepare him for the other musical joy at the fingertips of this compassionate woman. In a moment she had him playing scales. By Christmas Eve of that year, she had him singing at the service. His mother actually crossed the street for the first time to hear him in this pivotal event of his young life.
Sweitzer inhabits over a dozen characters in this play entitled 20 Seconds: A Play with Music, albeit two of them are him when young and him telling us the story now…two people he knows intimately. He is never so broad as to suggest caricature. His female characters are vibrant and flesh-and-blood enough for you to suspend disbelief that you aren’t actually seeing his mom Kathy, and Erdean, and Ms. Ruth, the fleabag hotel manager, and Denise, the girl next door, and finally his creation, Vivian Delgrosso, a drag homage to the Italian women his mom’s age. He brings the same depth to his male characters, with the masterpiece being his sadistic, yet eventually repentant father Tom. It is a fine actor indeed that takes us on that rollercoaster of envisioning Tom Sr. suffocating Kathy’s poodle in its water bowl, then throwing a Christmas tree through their living room window, and recovering from a suicide attempt to attend to his then blind and bedridden wife. One of the more poignant moments is his father’s volunteering to dress as Santa Claus to entertain a woman in a nursing home.
The play’s scenes tug on an audience’s heartstrings, not all of them requiring Kleenex. A touching case in point is the Christmas morning when the foulmouthed young Tommy, beside himself with anger when he finds yet another pair of husky pants as a gift under the tree, gets taken to the local Sears. Kathy persuades the local Sears manager to open the store in the hopes of convincing Tommy that all the plastic mannequin boys were once real boys just like him who had ruined their mothers’ Christmas with their foul mouths and their lack of appreciation.
One of the most tender moments is how we get Sweitzer’s title. After Kathy attempts to protect herself by putting crushed glass in Tom’s coffee and her crushed heart pills in his mashed potatoes, Kathy ends up having a heart attack. Now alone again, Tommy finds himself visiting Erdean for moral support. “How can you forgive someone if all they do is hurt you and hurt someone you love over and over again? And if you do forgive them, how do you even know they care?” She offers, “That’s when you ask God for help. He’s good at these things…Every time a person is in front of you, you have a choice, a choice to see that person as a full human, someone who is just as broken and as whole as yourself, and deserving of love, or you can see them as small and insignificant and not deserving of love…do you ever hug your father?” (We’ve been watching this play; we know the answer to this question.)… “Well, sometimes when things are really scary and you don’t know what else to do – and you’ll know when this is – hug your father. For 20 seconds.”
Kudos to Jeremy Scott Blaustein, credited with directing and developing the piece. The play is filled with pure emotion. He is careful to not let the mood become maudlin, providing more of a conscious hand-holding than any exclamation points. It’s safe to say exclamation points aren’t necessary as we willingly follow Tommy through these 26 scenes as he moves towards finding his path.
Late in the play, after the death of his mother and a reconciliation with his father, Tommy gets invited to a wedding reception of a friend and former next-door neighbor. This is at a time when he has begun a sideline of entertaining people as Vivian Delgrosso, an amalgam of his mother and other Italian women of a certain age. At the reception he runs into his father who offers to help “her” pump beer out of a keg. Tom marvels at how much this woman reminds him of his recently deceased wife. As they chat, Tom innocently reveals to this “stranger” his true feelings for his son: admiration and pride, two emotions he has never been able to bring himself to reveal to the one person who needed to hear that the most.
The play is complemented by Lindsay Fuori’s whimsy in design. An upright piano to one side of the stage, a comfy armchair to the other side, with a big living room window in the center. A “china closet” to one side of the window, with pieces to display bric-a-brac on either side and a large couch dead center. Slightly above the stage we have drops that suggest the church and wall paneling and wallpaper up to another floor as well as chunks of cheery blue sky and clouds. Emilee McVey-Lee’s costume design is simple and effective for a young boy with a weight issue – a striped shirt with horizontal stripes (think Charlie Brown, but with more stripes). Jamie Roderick’s lighting is adroit in keeping the drops unlit for the intimate conversations with the audience yet burning bright for the moments of joy and achievement. It helps center the audience’s attention for what really is an intimate show on a necessarily expansive set. Bill Toles’ sound design is the consummate audio for the things we cannot see.
It should surprise no one that Sweitzer has taken his life experience and channeled it into doing good for others. He is co-founder, creative director and head of music therapy at A Place To Be, a non-profit organization serving over 400 families weekly, offering music therapy and expressive arts services in Northern Virginia. “I wanted to create a place where a person, no matter their ability, would be seen as fully human, just as broken and whole as anyone else, and deserving of love.”
He leaves us with a moment so absolutely endearing. He goes to visit Erdean, now in her 90’s, in a nursing home. Though he is warned by a nurse that she is somewhat uncommunicative and to not get his hopes up of a fulfilling visit, he shows up with the requisite meatballs (a gift he learned from his mother) “I wanted to say thank you for showing me music when I was a kid. You taught me piano. You taught me singing. You helped me be who I am today. I’m a Music Therapist. Basically I do what you did for me.” He plays a piano and she recognizes him.
Thomas Sweitzer, for the haunting 20 Seconds, your audiences thank you.
20 Seconds: A Play with Music (through October 21, 2023)
Pershing Square Signature Center
Irene Diamond Stage, 480 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.20secondsplay.com
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission