Johnny is the youngest and most sensitive of three siblings stranded in a surreal Irish Catholic household lorded over by their father, a butcher from the Bronx, and their mother, a chipper, hope-mongering wreck of a woman who can only grant chill advice, not comfort. Their daughter Sheila flees her family through marriage while Joey, a high-school dropout, opts for a career in the navy and eventually returns from Vietnam. Alone, Johnny takes solace in pyromania and writing about his family. As Johnny matures, he becomes increasingly perceptive, revealing with more and more sympathy the underlying causes of so much family misery. In between Johnny's musings are raucous scenes of catastrophic violence barely held in check by each character's submerged but instinctual need for the love of one another. In the play's final scenes, part memory, part hallucination and part truth, Ma is seen through Johnny's eyes as she once was: innocent and flirtatious (even with Johnny), and painfully unprepared for her ultimate destination with Pop. The father is also transfigured in Johnny's imagination: broken, remorseful and unable to identify with the mantle of fatherhood that his own traditional upbringing inflicted upon him. As the forgiving vision begins, Pop and Ma dance to "Danny Boy," the song to which they used to force their children to dance, but when Joey interrupts he is struck dead by his father. Johnny ends the play by lighting more matches, looking back upon his vision of Joey's death but unable to outrun it.
In his most autobiographical work to date, John Patrick Shanley takes on the demons and angels of the past that are never quite put to rest because they are family. Fast-paced, furious and unrelenting, this highly stylized play explores the myths and reality of an Irish-American family at war with itself. "…crackles with the energy of artists who are going places…a theatrical event not likely to recur anytime soon…In a breathless 90 minutes, 40 topsy-turvy years of family life flood across the stage." —NY Times. "…Painfully funny…a memory play that is like Eugene O'Neill as seen through the eyes of a Tennessee Williams influenced by Eugene Ionesco." —NY Post. "…funny and profoundly painful at the same time…a play to be seen more than once." —Chelsea Journal.