By Adrienne Kennedy; Directed by Evan Yionoulis
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 2.11.18
Theater For A New Audience, 262 Ashland Place
by Ran Xia on 2.1.18
Juliana Canfield and Tom Pecinka in He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
BOTTOM LINE: Adrienne Kennedy's poetic, albeit perplexing, new play deals shows how the trauma from segregation is still relevant today.
Adrianne Kennedy’s new play is like a small stream trickling out, forming a poetic mist. It’s Georgia, 1941: a bygone era unwilling to be purged. Shadows of children in a boarding school "for the colored" loom over Chris Barreca’s sparse and atmospheric set, suggesting a story from the past that still lingers eerily in the present. A staircase climbs two stories to a door, behind which a light shines through, like a passage of escape. But our heroes can't pass that barrier, as they are trapped inside a world of shadows and memories.
Kay (Juliana Canfield), a biracial girl, and Chris (Tom Pecinka), the son of local elder Harrison Aherne (a silent presence, in the form of a mannequin), are both 17, with pockets full of dreams and too little experience to know what the future has in store. Their awkward meet cute is a game of intimacy and distance, which only adds to their yearning: with Kay lingering on the balcony and Chris approaching her, tentatively, halfway up the stairs, the electricity is palpable. Kudos to the commanding presence of the two superb performers.
After they get engaged, Chris goes off to follow his dream of becoming a stage actor, and Kay remains at school. For the rest of the play, their intimacy is played out amidst a web of time and fate. There is the mysterious death of Kay’s mother Mary, and then the sexual relationship between the elder Mr. Aherne and three black women, all dead and buried in the cemetery, each of whom had given him a child.
The means of communication between the two protagonists becomes the thread that propels the play forward. Due to their physical distance between Kay and Chris, their intimacy is largely an oral history of speculation, which is immediately a beautiful convention. What makes me feel detached from the characters is their overly sentimental, put-on affectation. The pair, presented as a pair of perfectly preserved relics from pre-WWII America, is almost too polished to be believable. They move and speak in poetic slow motion, making it easy to be distracted by the production’s aesthetics and language, rather than having the chance to motor on with the play.
Further, given how such complex characters are set within a loaded context, I wonder whether the play deserves more time for the story to come to fruition. With only 50 minutes, it's hard to complete a journey of two people whose fates parallel one of the most turbulent socio-political periods. I love theatre that challenges the audience and leaves room for imagination, but He Brought Her Heart Back In A Box tells us these two characters should be adored and related to, without giving us many reasons to root for them. Their experiences are largely present as historical facts, rather than something I could envision them living through.
The titular phrase alludes to a speculation that Kay's white father brought her mother Mary's heart back in a box. Perhaps it's history repeating itself, tying Kay's fate to her mother's; perhaps it's a metaphor for the black women who are victims of the sexual objectification of white men, men who rarely are affected by their diversions from what's considered "proper" by those bygone social standards.
Perhaps it’s good to have questions after seeing a play: the limited lifespan of the characters can extend as we continue to inquire how and why their story came to be. Or perhaps this is a play that demands one does their homework—reading up on the history of segregation in the South might help one understand and relate to this piece. Still, as someone who’s unfamiliar with that part of American history (though certainly curious and receptive), I can’t help but wish that He Brought Her Heart Back In A Box was less of a high-context conversation.
(He Brought Her Heart Back In A Box plays at Theater for a New Audience, 262 Ashland Place, through February 11, 2018. The running time is 50 minutes without an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays and Sundays at 2 and 7:30. Tickets are $90 - $125 and are available at tfana.org.)
He Brought Her Heart Back In A Box is by Adrienne Kennedy. Directed by Evan Yionoulis. Set Design by Christopher Barreca. Costume Design by Montana Levi Blanco. Lighting Design by Donald Holder. Composition and Sound Design by Justin Ellington. Video Design by Austin Switser. Production Stage Manager is Cole Bonenberger. Assistant Stage Manager is Shane Schnetzler.
The cast is Juliana Canfield and Tom Pecinka.