Directed by Russ Tutterow
At Chicago Dramatists
Southbridge is an intricate and moving drama on the dangers of being truly seen.
Southbridge, which received its world premiere at Chicago Dramatist this month, is a nuanced and complex drama. Written by resident playwright Reginald Edmund, it tells the tale of Christopher Davis (known as “Stranger”), a young black man who stands accused of murdering his white widow employer in nineteenth-century Ohio. Stranger, already feared by the community for his clairvoyant abilities, must choose between a forced confession and a lynch mob waiting for him outside the jailhouse door. Its culminating events told as a series of digressive flashbacks, the play unfolds with all the horrors of a sacrificial rite. And while it cannot always hold off the sentimental trappings of melodrama, Southbridge is nonetheless a sophisticated study of guilt, revelation, and the frustrated bondage of love.
Edmund wrote Southbridge “in the hope that people who may be quick to judge will learn to look around and realize we live in a very grey world, not black and white.” Such realizations apply equally to those who may be quick to absolve. Stranger is not the innocent white rose of more pandering melodramas. Yet his negligence, his deceit, and his cruelty is pervasive throughout the inhabitants of Athens, Ohio. His sins are the sins of his community–which he himself will be forced to shoulder. Stranger’s given name, Christopher, is derived from the Greek meaning “he who bears Christ (in his soul).” In Stranger’s case, he bears it in the scars carved in his back, evocative echoes of the flagellation of Christ. And like Christ, Stranger’s story is one of tragic isolation, self-sacrifice, and the burden of collective atonement placed on the head of one man.
Still, for all its far-reaching mythic undertones, the script could stand just a few more tweaks. Its constant references to “sight” and “seeing,” for example, verge on the exhaustive, like a musical refrain played so often it starts to lose its luster. Rest assured, the point has been sufficiently made, and beating the audience over the head with an overplayed motif only serves to show the extent of its limitations. There is a further tendency for some of the dialogue to slip into a cloying sentimentality which if it doesn’t do the play any harm, it most certainly doesn’t do it any good either.
Nonetheless, Russ Tutterow directs Southbridge with a softly guiding touch, rightfully allowing Edmund’s script to take center stage. His blocking is unobtrusive and helps imbue the narrative with a dream-like fluidity. He thus entrusts much of the play’s forward momentum to his actors and is, in fact, able to solicit some solid performances. Manny Buckley gives a notably earnest interpretation of Christopher “Stranger” Davis, although the quick shifts from past to present seem on occasion to overwhelm, and by the end of the second act he seems given over to an emotionally frenzied monotone. Ashley Honore is equally compelling as Stranger’s wife, although I couldn’t help but feel that the two roles might have been better served by slightly older actors (early 30s perhaps?). Neither Buckley nor Honore look a day over twenty-two, and we might get a stronger sense of investment in their marriage were they not such ostensible newlyweds. Wendy Robie gives a standout performance as the superbly delicate Ms. Lucinda Luckey, whose lonesome vulnerability is so potent that it stands to overwhelm almost everyone around her. Gene Cordon and Lance Newton round out the cast as the imposing Sheriff Ward and the eager Edwin C. Berry, respectively.
In short, there are few easy pleasures to be found in Southbridge, but those willing to peer beyond its sensational surfaces will be invariably rewarded with an intricate and heartfelt theatrical experience.
Anthony J Mangini
Date Reviewed: February 3, 2013
For more info checkout the Southbridge page at theatreinchicago.com, running time is 2 hours, 15 minutes with intermission