Tension threatens family unit

`a.m. Sunday' deals with hidden rift and ugly racism

TheaterReview

November 20, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

There's an unseen window at the edge of the stage, front and center, in designer David Gallo's abstract set for the play a.m. Sunday at Center Stage. Characters look out the window at significant moments in this harrowing domestic drama.

But what's more significant about this invisible window is that, metaphorically speaking, it's the audience's window onto a world rarely portrayed on stage - that of a biracial middle-class family.

Written by 28-year-old Jerome Hairston, a.m. Sunday was a hit at the prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in 2002. The play's East Coast premiere at Center Stage is only its second full production.

Despite a mostly strong cast, Hairston's deliberately troubling play is receiving a rather troubled production under Marion McClinton's direction.

The play focuses on a family of four - a black father, white mother and their two sons, ages 11 and 15. Spread over five days, the action begins on a Sunday morning. As 11-year-old Denny explains to his brother, Jay, Sundays have always been "special" in their home because that's "when it's everybody. All of us."

But Denny is beginning to doubt that there will be any more special Sundays, and with good reason. Fissures are developing between his once-devoted parents, whose growing but unspoken rift is having an impact on both boys - Jay, who has a white girlfriend and is dealing with racism for the first time, and Denny, who is having trouble at school, both in and out of the classroom.

The unspoken nature of the parents' problems is a key element in Hairston's writing, which is as lean and loaded with subtext as that of Harold Pinter, whom the younger writer has acknowledged as an influence.

"So much gets left unsaid in this world," Jay says, summing up a major theme of the play. But while what does get said is often elliptical - and at times, even poetic - much of the dialogue is over-burdened with double meanings. "You can't fix this, Jay. Even I get it to work. Still, it won't be fixed," father says to son. He's talking about a broken telephone, but his words could also apply to the family's damaged home life.

And yet, one of a.m. Sunday's assets is that it shows the powerful, loving bond that was at the core of this family. This bond comes through unequivocally in such performances as those of Johanna Day as the mother whose love for her husband and children can overcome almost any obstacle, and JD Williams as 15-year-old Jay, whose concern for his agitated, younger brother is a reflection of the love that once suffused this entire household.

Among the most moving scenes are one in which Jay reluctantly answers his mother's questions about his love life, and another in which, while waiting for a bus, Jay and Denny discuss everything from shoes and sex to fights at school. (The latter scene, and, indeed, the production as a whole, would be even more effective if Massimo Angelo Delogu Jr. - who alternates in the role of Denny with an actor named Sylk - delivered his lines with greater volume and assurance.)

As the father, Ray Anthony Thomas is believable as someone whose man-of-few-words manner has set the tone - and a dangerous precedent - for the whole family. And Robyn Simpson is right on target as Jay's smart, bubbly girlfriend.

Oddly, for a play about relationships riven with tension, McClinton's direction is surprisingly lacking in urgency. That, combined with occasional profanity and references to sex, may make this a difficult play for some audiences. It's certainly a daring one for Center Stage to have taken on.

Theatergoers who hang in there, however, will be rewarded by an open-ended final scene that just may contain a shred of hope not only for racial understanding, but for the potential steadfastness of the American family.

a.m. Sunday

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays, with matinees at 2 p.m. most Saturdays and Sundays. Through Dec. 14

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

Admission: $10-$55

Call: 410-332-0033

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