Wouldn't change a thing in 'Caroline'

theater review

December 21, 2008|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

The production of Caroline, or Change currently running at Center Stage sears the audience's hearts like a hot iron.

First, this show pulls and warps the delicate tissue. Then, it leaves a scorch mark. Finally, it burns clean through.

And, like all such traumas, there's a slight, delayed reaction before we start to sting. We're so taken by the playfulness of the singing appliances (such as a washing machine, dryer and radio), so entranced by the humor, so swept up by the loveliness of the performers' voices, that we don't notice until the next day, that there is a spot in our hearts that is alive with sensation, and that is tender when pressed.

We finger the wound cautiously, experimentally. We'll be OK, just slightly different.

Caroline, or Change is billed as a "chamber opera" with a script and lyrics by Tony Kushner (author of the epic Angels in America) and music by Jeanine Tesori. It is sung through; perhaps no more than a handful of lines in the whole show are spoken.

The story, which is set in Lake Charles, La., in 1963 is semi-autobiographical, and concerns the relationship between Caroline, a black maid, and the liberal Jewish family that employs her.

When the play begins, the mother of the family has died. The father remarries too quickly, before either he or his 8-year-old son has had time to mourn.

The new wife, who moves to Louisiana from New York, is a stranger adrift in a strange land. Her husband is distant, and her stepson resents her. Adding insult to injury, the boy adores Caroline, perhaps because she freely expresses the rage the child has bottled up inside.

But, Caroline has problems of her own. She is a divorced mother of four children, and is hard-pressed to make ends meet on her salary of $30 a week. If that weren't enough, the civil rights movement has begun.

Into this combustible atmosphere, Rose, the stepmother, introduces a new rule. To break young Noah of the bad habit of leaving loose change in his pocket, she declares that the maid will be allowed to keep any coins she finds - with devastating consequences.

As the dryer sings, "Small domestic tragedies/bring strong women to their knees."

In the past, director David Schweizer has gussied up some productions with unnecessary effects. This time, he wisely restrains that impulse, perhaps reasoning that a warbling city bus is all the spectacle any show needs.

Costume designer David Burdick has attired the nonhuman characters in colors reflecting the element each represents. Thus, the washing machine (water) wears blues and greens; the dryer (fire) is red; the trio playing the radio (air) is adorned in shiny metallics reminiscent of static electricity, and the bus (earth) wears a uniform the color of mud.

Schweizer also has cast top-notch performers. Kelly McCreary, as Emmie, Caroline's rebellious daughter, is an intriguing mix of spitfire and childishness. One moment, she debates nonviolence with an elderly Jewish man; the next, she joins her two younger brothers in a silly game.

Trisha Rapier is brittle, frantic and touching as Rose Gellman, the well-meaning, but misguided stepmother. Milton Craig Nealy shines in two roles. First, he does a hilarious send-up of Little Richard in the role of the devilish dryer. Later, as the city bus, Nealy shows off his rumbling bass to great effect.

I'm always nervous when children are cast in major roles. Few youngsters are as skilled as their adult counterparts, and in reviewing professional productions, an honest critic should point that out. But, no one wants to pan a kid.

Luckily, Matthew Demetrides (who shares the role of Noah with Bradley Bowers) instantly put my fears to rest.

Not only does Matthew have a sweet, true voice, he brought an unforced naturalness to his portrayal of the sad boy. Moreover, genuine affection exists between him and E. Faye Butler's Caroline.

Audience members who haven't seen Butler perform before might not fully appreciate the magnitude of what she accomplishes here. In most roles, Butler overflows with charisma. She is warm, charming, immensely likable. These are her natural gifts - and every single one of them is wrong for this role. So every single one gets tamped down and buried for this show.

As Caroline, Butler remains a force of nature, but she is an anguished, furious force. Even the actress' lush, curvaceous body seems to have turned to cement. It becomes an obstacle in your path, something to get past. She is an immovable object. No wonder Rose is desperate to get rid of her.

Caroline's anger drives her to an unforgivable extreme. How she rids herself, once and for all, of anger and self-loathing is either a tragedy (as the moon says) or, as the washing machine puts it, it is a "quiet, costly victory."

Perhaps both interpretations are equally valid. Perhaps it doesn't really matter. In the show's final scene, the radio plays a song called "Salty Teardrops."

I tasted a few of my own.

if you go

Caroline, or Change runs through Jan. 18 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Show times: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 7 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m., 7:30 p.m. Sundays. $10-$60. 410-332-0033 or centerstage.org.

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