Friday, January 9, 2015

Louisville lives are focus of search for identity in Phoenix Theatre's "River City"

Score one for any spouse who can end a marital spat by saying to his partner: You're not so special. You're the least special person I know.

That's the effective tactic Javier employs in defusing his pregnant wife's articulate tantrum about the decidedly mixed joys of biracial status in America today.

In "River City," a poignant comedy by Diana Grisanti that opened Thursday night in a Phoenix Theatre production, Mary is determined to give birth in the Louisville of the title as part of her quest to reconnect with family roots. She sees being considered "special" — a designation reflexively employed by her adoring white mother, Ruth — as a burden that separates her from her black side.
Javier and Mary have issues to negotiate.

Her recently deceased father, whom she barely knew, has left behind some puzzling mementos, and she feels rootless in Chicago, where Javier is making a name for himself as a trendy master of  Mexican cuisine. In Louisville a generation before, we learn, the charming uncertainty bedeviling the hero, Mary's father Edward, helps explain why his daughter knows so little about him and his parentage as she moves to Louisville to find out more.

Grisanti's play is the latest Phoenix offering through its National New Play Network membership. The "rolling world premiere" also has productions in Charlotte, N.C., and Tucson, Ariz.

The playwright, who holds a residency at a Louisville theater,  handles different places and time levels smoothly. Dale McFadden's direction at the Phoenix solders every transition firmly into place on the split stage.

Sister Alice coaches Edward on preparing for job interview.
The unit set is a bit puzzling at first, with its brick walls interrupted by jagged areas of scratched plaster. But if you take off your realistic glasses and see it as symbolic of Mary's scarred and interrupted family story — one rocked by social upheaval and urban decay — Jeffrey Martin's design  cumulatively enhances the drama.

The Phoenix production is precisely cast, right down to both visual and vocal racial and ethnic
authenticity. Two actors are double-cast, and they embody contrasting characters with distinction. I found A.J. Morrison to be more comfortable as the awkward government clerk helping Mary follow the paper trail than he was as the priest who heads the Catholic orphanage. Exercising his authority, he dismisses the independent-minded Italian nun who has been helping Edward thwart attempts to transfer him to another home. Father Schroeder's ferocity at the role's climax wasn't as convincing as his mere sternness had been. Julie Dixon brought stature and humanity to the role of Sister Alice, Edward's stalwart protector. In the lower-key role of Ruth, she was a compassionate counterweight to the anxious Mary.

Whitney and his son have contrasting perspectives on success
The pacing and dynamic variety of Edward's scenes with his father, starting with their first tentative meeting when neither is aware of the other's true identity, were superb. They were among the high points of well-managed portrayals by Matt Herndon as the curious, energetic teen and Ben Rose as the skilled radio-repair-shop manager, Whitney. The man who turns out to be Edward's father tries to keep bitterness at bay as he runs his ailing father's business, then struggles to maintain it on his own as a symbol of neighborhood pride and survival. By the time Mary locates him, he's a defeated man, a cog in the corporate wheel, yet his essential decency and tenderness are intact. In Rose's performance, Whitney seemed fully ready to close the circle on his granddaughter's quest.

The loving but conflicted couple Javier and Mary displayed genuine rapport in the performances of Mauricio Miranda and Kayla Carter. The playwright may have overloaded their dialogue in the interests of showing how intelligent and complex these characters are, but Miranda and Carter tossed off the difficulties with aplomb.

Both acts, however, were laboriously launched with dramatically essential but cluttered dialogue, delivered without much breathing room. Grisanti displays in "River City" a keen sense of dramatic momentum, but the power packed into the way she opens each act seemed barely under control. The eventual payoff is intense and moving, however. Those of us with less tangled questions about our identity are brought into the orbit of "River City" with humor and sensitivity.