Directed by Andrea J. Dymond
At Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, Chicago
Blood ties lead the individual search for identity and life purpose
Playwright Julie Hebert’s attempt to write a play about an interracial relationship in the 1950’s when Jim Crow laws were still in place – Tree – is a moving story of four souls searching for personal identity as shaped by their family ties. This is a haunting work with subtle power with a mysterious element that finds a couple of stubborn people struggling to either maintain the status quo or find our the how’s and why’s of their family (s) history. Tree is peopled with uniquely empathetic characters.
Didi Marcantel (Elaine Rivkin) is a white college professor of gender studies, a lesbian, and a daughter who finds a cache of love letters from her recently dead father that reveals a family secret. She travels to Chicago’s South Side to meet her half-brother Leo Price (Aaron Todd Douglas), a divorced chef with an ailing mother -Jessalyn (Celeste Williams) and a college-aged daughter JJ (Leslie Ann Sheppard). Leo struggles to help is mother, who suffers from advanced dementia that renders her incoherent most of the time, while working to support the family and to send JJ to college. We see Jessalyn babbling on as she is caught in the past reliving her most painful life experiences. We also see the Jessalyn who was the strict school teacher bent on teaching manners as well as school subjects. Leo sure has his hands full.
When Didi visits the Price family, Leo isn’t too interested in aiding Didi with her apparent guilt-trip to meet and discover her father’s secret affair with the African-American Jessalyn in 1953-45. The bundle of letters she found only told one side of the story. Didi hoped that Jessalyn would reveal the rest of the story. What happened after Leo was born to the white-black couple? What did Leo know? And why is Leo adamantly not interested in helping find out both families secrets? Leo felt abandoned my his biological white father since he was raised by Mr. Price, Jessalyn’s husband in Chicago.
When Didi and Leo’s worlds collide, both must face their shared roots in order for each to know where they’ve come from to know who they are. Since Jessalyn’s memories are unreliable and often incoherent, the love letters are a rich source to solve the family secrets. When JJ and Didi discover that Jessalyn also saved the love letters to her, the mystery is solved as they learn what led to the lover’s living separate loves: the mother in Chicago and the father in Louisiana.
The struggle between Didi and Leo, despite differences in race, gender and culture is depicted in a series of well-played scenes filled with subtle sparks of anger, hate and empathy. Aaron Todd Douglas’ truthfully understated performance anchors the play. Celeste Williams’ powerful ranting as the tormented soul moving in and out of coherence was a brave and haunting turn. Elaine Rivkin plays the determined professor with a quiet forcefulness while Leslie Ann Sheppard plays JJ as the next generation curious as to her family history.
There is much to like about Tree: unique and believable characters put into a plausible situations. I’d bet that their are many such stories from the South from the 40’s- 50’s. Hebert’s script contains no false or incredulous plot twists but it is grounded in truth and there in lies it’s power. Everything that happened could have happened. We struggle to understand Jessalyn’s story that keeps being bottled up in her mind. When Didi and Leo learn about their shared past, both reach a new understanding of who they are. We are saddened by Jessalyn’s present state.
This is a wonderful play deals with the influence of the past, especially with an explosive interracial relationship, on two separate families. We see how key early life events can cloud a family for generations. Tree is a gem of a play!
Talk theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: April 13,2011
For full show information, go to the Tree page at TheatreinChicago.com
At the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, IL, Call 773-871-3000, tickets $20 – $50, Tuesday thru Saturdays at 7:30 pm, matinees on Wednesdays at 2 pm, Saturdays at 4 pm, Sundays at 3pm, running time is 1 hour, 45 minutes without intermission, through May 1, 2011