Don Aucoin, The Boston Globe April 13, 2012
THE LUCK OF THE IRISH shines at Huntington
Early in Kirsten Greenidge’s “The Luck of the Irish,’’ during a get-together that initially appears social in nature but turns out to be a very particular sort of business transaction, two couples drink from a set of glasses that seem like, but aren’t, Waterford crystal.
This small matter of mistaken glassware leads a pair of women — one black, one white — to make assumptions about each other that help pave the way for longstanding antagonism. (There is also the matter of a house, and who is its true owner.)
It’s one of numerous instances in Greenidge’s superb, beautifully realized new play — now receiving its premiere in a Huntington Theatre Company production directed by Melia Bensussen — that illustrate the playwright’s sure grasp of the nuances of race and class and her insights into the complexities of human nature.
Those gifts were also on display in Greenidge’s “Bossa Nova,’’ produced at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 2010. But “The Luck of the Irish’’ is even better. In the hands of a less skilled writer, “Irish’’ could come off as a sociological treatise. Not in Greenidge’s hands, though. A writer of compassion and deep understanding, she populates the stage of the BCA’s Wimberly Theatre with vividly individualized characters who, in different ways, for different reasons, and to different degrees, each make a claim on our sympathy.
After a somewhat meandering start, “The Luck of the Irish’’ settles into a smooth rhythm as it shuttles back and forth between the late 1950s and the early 2000s.
In the 1950s, a black couple, Lucy and Rex Taylor (played by Nikkole Salter and Victor Williams) are preparing to move from their South End apartment to a fictional, predominantly white Boston suburb named Bellington. They are doing so with the assistance of a white couple, Patty Ann and Joe Donovan (portrayed by Marianna Bassham and McCaleb Burnett). The Donovans are being remunerated by the Taylors, though whether their payment is sufficient will soon become a point of fierce dispute between Patty Ann and Lucy.
(Greenidge based this scenario on a tactic used by her own grandparents to buy a house in Arlington in 1967. Her family called it “ghost-buying.’’ It occurred often in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, as black homebuyers used white straw buyers, who would transfer the deed to them, to circumvent the unwillingness of white owners to sell to black homebuyers and the refusal by real estate agents to show homes to African-Americans.)
Fast forward nearly half a century. Hannah Davis (Francesca Choy-Kee), the granddaughter of Lucy and Rex, and her husband, Rich (Curtis McClarin), are living in the Bellington house. Suddenly Mrs. Donovan, now elderly but no less fierce, starts besieging them with letters demanding that they move out, claiming that she and her husband are the rightful owners of the house. Is it possible that she is telling the truth? The Davises search high and low for their own copy of the deed.
Meanwhile, Hannah is making plans to pull their son out of fourth grade and home-school him, convinced that the teachers have stigmatized him because he is the only black student. Her husband believes she is overreacting. Marital friction ensues.
This bare-bones summary does not begin to capture how rich Greenidge’s dialogue is, how satisfyingly detailed the two interwoven stories are, and how uniformly well-acted “The Luck of the Irish’’ is, including by Shalita Grant as Hannah’s sister Nessa and by Nancy E. Carroll and Richard McElvain as the elderly Donovans.
Choy-Kee, who played a key role in the Yale Rep’s “Bossa Nova,’’ delivers a sensitive performance as Hannah, who is bedeviled by anxieties about her son that may have more to do with nagging insecurities, down deep, about her own place in the world. Salter is equally compelling as Lucy, whose will is unyielding (she will not allow her family to be pushed out of Bellington) but whose heart is touched by the hapless, dreamy Joe, who longs for the life of books and words that Lucy lives.
Greenidge, who lives in Medford, has been steadily building a reputation, play by play. “The Luck of the Irish’’ can only add luster to that reputation.