Talkin’ Broadway Regional News & Reviews: BOSTON

Regional Reviews by Nancy Grossman

THE LUCK OF THE IRISH by Kirsten Greenidge
Huntington Theatre Company

An unpleasant footnote to Boston’s storied racial past is revealed in Kirsten Greenidge’s The Luck of the Irish, a world premiere play showcased in a world class production by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts. Juxtaposing two time periods, the playwright examines how the choices and actions of an earlier generation affect the lives of their heirs fifty years later, and raises questions about the definition of home and what it takes to belong somewhere. Obie Award-winning director Melia Bensussen finds both the drama and the humor inherent in the situation and guides a flawless cast to capture the humanity in Greenidge’s characters while evoking a strong sense of place.

In the late 1950s, Dr. Rex and Lucy Taylor, an affluent, educated African-American couple, wish to move from Boston to the suburbs to provide a better life for their two daughters. They make a deal with Joe and Patty Ann Donovan, struggling to get by with their six children, to “ghost-buy” the house for them in the segregated neighborhood and sign over the deed for an agreed sum. It is not without trepidation for the Taylors and hard or mixed feelings for the Donovans, but both couples try to keep their eyes on the prize and forge ahead. None of them can know the ramifications that the Taylors’ granddaughters Hannah and Nessa will face fifty years later when Lucy dies and they inherit the house.

In the early 2000s, Hannah and her husband Rich are living in the house with their hyperactive son Miles and their unseen daughter. While they are dealing with school adjustment issues for Miles (who likes to bite) and the perceived slights of being the “only” in many circumstances in their primarily white community, the now elderly Mrs. Donovan starts to bombard them with letters asking for “their” house back. Hannah’s response is to circle the wagons and home school Miles, while Rich employs a lawyer friend to research the deed on the house to verify their legal claim to the property.

Although the community in question is fictionalized as Bellington, the playwright’s grandparents purchased a home in Arlington with the help of a white friend, and this family lore inspired Greenidge to use the practice as the central metaphor of her play. From that focal point, she examines an array of radii having to do with racial inequality, stereotypes, longing for a sense of place and the importance of home. As different as the Taylors and Donovans appear to be, they have the same desire to earn their share of the American dream. For the Taylors, the house represents the opportunity for access to the mainstream and for their kids to go to better schools. For the Donovans, it is the culmination of the dream.

The duality of The Luck of the Irish is set in motion in the opening scene when the characters from both eras are onstage simultaneously, each vignette alternately drawing our attention with snippets of conversation providing vital exposition. Throughout the play, Rex and Lucy vacate a space that becomes occupied by Hannah, Nessa or Rich in a seamless exchange. It gives the effect of the ghostly presence of the elders permeating the property, heightening the dramatic impact of the connection between the generations and the implication that this is their legacy; this is where they belong. The Donovans’ side of the story is the duality within the duality, the other side of the coin. While they are drawn less sympathetically by Greenidge, they are neither cutouts nor bad people. Their complex attitudes and actions are informed by an underlying ache born of racial beliefs, resentment and lost opportunities.

As well as the playwright has written her characters, they become strikingly vivid in the portrayals by this amazing cast. It’s hard to know where to begin in describing their work and showering accolades, but I’ll start with the women because they are the beating heart of The Luck of the Irish. Nikkole Salter, an IRNE Award nominee for the Huntington’s Stick Fly two years ago, plays Lucy with a matriarchal ken, infusing her with intelligence and quiet dignity. She is a woman who knows who she is, unwilling to settle for the place society tries to put her in, and able to stand up to the forces that try to stifle her, whether it is her husband or Patty Ann. Marianna Bassham inhabits the personality of the latter, with a classic Boston accent to boot. Her tight-lipped expression and frantic glances at her husband convey how uptight she is, especially when she cuts him off in conversation to tell him what to do. Bassham shows Patty Ann’s struggle to be light and cheerful as it quickly gives way to darker, vindictive behavior that foreshadows what will happen in half a century.

Francesca Choy-Kee (Hannah) and Shalita Grant (Nessa) are realistic as sisters, sharing their insecurities as they navigate intranquil seas in their disparate ways. At the outset, they do not seem to have inherited their grandmother’s quietude or sense of place, but both women show growth through the course of events. Choy-Kee convinces us that Hannah loves her yard when she peacefully looks out over the audience to the adjacent field, and is just as realistic in her anger and indignation over the way her son is treated by the school. We feel her ambivalence about wanting to fit in and not wanting to give in to social pressures. Nessa’s role mirrors that of her sister as she offers tough-talking support, but struggles to stand up for herself in her own life.

It is a joy to see Nancy E. Carroll back on the local stage following a touring stint with the Druid Theatre of Galway. As the elderly Mrs. Donovan, her tight lips and acidic tone replicate Bassham’s physical expression of the younger Patty Ann. She calls on Hannah to try to force her family to relinquish the house in the latter part of the second act, still spewing invectives about the order of things. When her husband (Richard McElvain, appearing careworn but with a bit of a leprechaun’s twinkle in his eye) discloses a fifty year-old truth, Mrs. Donovan is stunned and Carroll’s face becomes a map showing every disappointment in the woman’s life.

Victor Williams (Rex) and McCaleb Burnett (Joe) both play men who are the titular head of household, but cede dominion to their strong-willed wives. Williams looks the part of the confident, accomplished physician intent on getting what he wants for his family and enjoying a loving partnership with Lucy, but who gradually gets worn down by the dealings with the Donovans. By the time Rex considers moving to West Medford as an alternative, Williams looks doubtful and downtrodden. Burnett’s character is constantly bobbing and weaving around Patty Ann’s jabs. His most serene moment is in a scene between Joe and Lucy when they trade lines of the Robert Frost poem “Mending Wall.” At that point, he shows us a side of Joe that he is forced to suppress, but that portends the play’s watershed. Rich (Curtis McClarin) is an evolved man with a blend of the best traits of Rex and Joe, and McClarin’s ease of movement implies a character who is comfortable in his own skin. Antoine Gray Jr. (in this performance) and Jahmeel Mack alternate in the role of rambunctious Miles.

Bensussen choreographs the stage movement smoothly and efficiently, with the actors carrying the props of their decade on and off with them. James Noone’s intricately designed façade of a two-story house looms large over the proceedings, a silent character that speaks volumes about what is at stake in the tug of war between the two families. The costumes designed by Mariann S. Verheyen are evocative of the styles of the ’50s. Patty Ann wears flowery, shirtwaist dresses and her husband sports wide-leg trousers with blue collar camp shirts. Lucy’s clothes are colorful, fitted and trendier, and Rex looks the part of a doctor in well-tailored suits. The modern era outfits are casual—jeans, khakis and the like—with Nessa’s outfits a bit quirky to reflect her personality. Justin Townsend’s lighting design helps focus our attention when the action shifts between scenarios, and original music and sound design are by David Remedios.

Luck of the Irish has a decidedly Boston flavor which is fun for local audiences, but its subject matter is universal. Whether or not ghost-buying occurred in other cities, segregation and racial inequities have been too large a part of our national identity. Using race and real estate as the playing field, Greenidge crafts a story that resonates with anyone who ever felt different or tried to fit in, who searched for a place to call home, or who helped someone else achieve their dream. Her characters are ordinary people who have what it takes to be heroes in their own lives, ending up wiser from the struggle, but still hopeful.