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By Jeanne Cooper
The Boston Globe

 

 

GLOUCESTER - "Ordinary things have lovely wings" is a line of poetry storyteller Jay O'Callahan borrows to explain the relative ease and difficulty of creating the two major tales of "Points of View" at Gloucester Stage Company. The events of his Brookline childhood story "Glasses" are ordinary, while the wartime exploits of "Father Joe" are extraordinary; with both, O'Callahan not only takes wing but soars.

 

"Glasses" is part of a series about growing up in Pill Hill (named for all the doctors there, he explains) near the end of World War II. His mother kneads in the red dot on top of the white margarine so it will look less ersatz; real butter will signify the war's end. He busies himself climbing trees and accidentally breaking things - sometimes simultaneously - while looking forward to the return of his uncle Jackie from the fighting. O'Callahan recalls "the rhythm of his neighborhood," where he's whistled home for supper as women call for their pooches, and captures its tone and tempo perfectly.

 

In his school of "toughies," getting glasses is the worst thing that can happen to a boy, but happen it does. (O'Callahan compares enduring the optometrist's grilling of "Better, same or worse" with going to confession.) He then proceeds to break the glasses - at $12 a pop - in a series of humorous (to us) accidents. "At least he's dependable," his father groans. "He breaks them once a month."

 

Uncle Jackie returns, but one war still goes on: O'Callahan's gentle Aunt Ann, on another side of the family, has been unable to leave the house since a fruit merchant spat at her. She's Canadian Japanese, and even Uncle Jackie, his war wounds still fresh, lashes out at her at O'Callahan's birthday party. The young boy feels responsible, and throws his uncle's present - a baseball autographed by Dom DiMaggio and Ted Williams - at his departing car. (He looked for it later, he tells us, but the ball was lost.)

 

O'Callahan's grandmother comes to live with them, feigning independence but showing up for special dinners; "Mama would suck all of the air in the house in," O'Callahan remembers. Grandma provides both an espionage target for his private game of Master Spy and a source of glasses to swipe when he breaks his once more on the day of Uncle Jackie's wedding. Yet she forgives him. ("With all his faults, I love him still, "she repeats to his embarrassment), just as Aunt Ann will have an opportunity to forgive Uncle Jackie.

 

In "Glasses," O'Callahan plays many delightfully detailed characters, but they are all viewed from the lens of his younger self. In "Tulips," a charming short story for children, he's a straight forward narrator telling of naughty Pierre and his "Grandma mere." With "Father Joe," O'Callahan attempts a more sophisticated perspective, blending "Rashomon"-like fragments of a stirring (and true) war story with a second-person overlay. "You are the captain...you are the bomb...you are the (USS) Franklin," he tells the audience at different stages as he shifts the point of view of the horrifying aftermath of a Japanese attack on a US aircraft carrier.

 

O'Callahan's uncle, a Navy chaplain, won a Medal of Honor for his role in saving the ship and hundreds of men from further destruction. But his tale of bravery is not only splintered in focus, it's interspersed with flash-forwards into O'Callahan's college days at Holy Cross in Worcester, where his uncle taught despite the ill effects of a severe stroke after the war. These vignettes of scholastic and romantic adventures offer more of O'Callahan's easy, self-deprecating humor, while establishing his uncle as a man of many gifts beyond courage. With unselfconscious animation, O'Callahan disputes his uncle's fear that he, like the battered aircraft carrier, was ever "dead in the water."

 

Being alive to humanity, its burdens and joys, is apparently a family tradition.

 

April 25, 1995
Reprinted from the Boston Globe, by permission.