note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
I think I saw a good play last week. But many of us who attended opening night of Huntington Playwright Fellow Kirsten Greenidge’s new play, “The Luck of the Irish,” strained to hear cast members who, at times, were barely audible.
I was more fortunate than others, because I sat in the fourth row of the theater. Either the acoustics are faulty, the microphone system was turned down (one time, it blasted, then retreated), or some actors were instructed to speak softly, defining their meek-mannered roles.
However, Greenidge’s dialogue is too good to miss, and Huntington’s production too impressive to be flawed. The play has poignant messages that touch Everyman. Besides outlining the practice of what Greenidge defines as “ghost buying” or setting up somebody to help purchase a home in a “closed” community, the play highlights people’s fitting in, belonging, and securing a sense of trust in outsiders. Before 1948, court-enforced restrictive covenants barred sales of homes between people of different races. The Supreme Court shot down that statue, but the practice subtly continued for years.
Besides gathering a fine cast, outstanding director Melia Bensussen has provocative staging, thanks to set designer James Noone. A large, two-story, wood-slatted house frame with floor-to-ceiling, opaque white curtains billowing in the background looms for five decades as the central point of controversy. Although all action occurs outside of that house, a desk and chair represent two dissimilar apartments, a diner, and the suburban house’s spacious lawn and backyard.
The play fluidly shifts back and forth a half-century, through three generations, between the late 1950s and early 2000s, when Lucy and Dr. Rex Taylor, (Victor Williams) a professional, well-educated Black couple, arranges through an unseen middle man named John for a poor, working Irish couple Joe (McCaleb Burnett) and Patty Ann Donovan, (Marianna Bassham) to “ghost buy” a house for them in the Donovans’ suburban community of Bellington. As time passes, Patty Ann’s resentment builds steam over the Taylors‘ owning a large, handsome house while she lives in close quarters with her husband and six children. She slaves over other people’s laundry, struggling to make a living, even though the Taylors paid them handsomely ($1,500) for their help.
Over the years, Patty Ann angrily says she deserves the house, and not the Taylors. She wants Joe to get more money from them. Fifty years later, she insists on reclaiming “her” property, because she has ownership of the title, or deed. Nancy E. Carroll as elder Patty Ann is as salty as ever, while esteemed actor Richard McElvain as elder Joe Donovan is overly mush-mouthed and spineless.
In flashbacks, Nikkole Salter as refined Lucy Taylor, is marvelously dignified, her ladylike demeanor sharply contrasted by Patty Ann’s jealousy and sense of entitlement, especially during the women’s confrontation. During Lucy’s triumphant scene, Salter drew loud applause.
What Lucy couldn’t foresee was her granddaughter Hannah’s (Francesca Choy-Kee) discomfiture and sense of not belonging when she, her husband Rich (Curtis McClarin), son Miles and daughter Lucy move into the house after her grandparents die. Hannah is ambivalent over Patty Ann’s attempt to take over the house. On the other hand, Shalita Grant as Hannah’s younger, upbeat, single sister, Nessa Charles, refuses to fight the system.
Hannah is convinced they don’t “fit in,” accusing teachers at Miles’ school of treating them like they’re uneducated. When Miles is suspended for jamming crayons down a playmate’s throat, Hannah’s convinced the school is against them and wants to home-school Miles.
But Miles, a bouncy, happy kid, loves school. The kids call him “Sport” and think he’s cool, he says. Young Equity stars Antione Gray Jr. and Jahmeel Mack alternate performances as Miles.
Like Ms. Greenidge, we all have stories of exploitation, bigotry and discrimination to share. We’ve all had neighbors who insist on good fences and mending walls. The best way to combat it in this land of milk and honey is through exposure, discussion and education. Greenidge’s moving play provides that - and more.
BOX INFO: Two-act, two-hour play by Kirsten Greenidge, extended by popular demand through May 6, at the Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., South End, Boston. Performances are Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Saturday, 8 p.m.; select Sundays,7 p.m.; matinees, select Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays, 2 p.m. Added performances, May 1-3, at 7:30 p.m.; May 4, at 8 p.m.; May 5, 2,8 p.m.; May 6, at 2 p.m. Check for show-related events. Tickets start at $25; senior discount, $5 off; subscribers, BU community, $10 off; patrons 35-below, $25; students, military, $15. Call 617-266-0800, visit the Box Office or huntingtontheatre.org.