By Bruce Norris
Directed by Frank Hilgenberg
Starring Pete Penuel, Leslie Penuel and Dan Cooksley
Theatre Downtown, Orlando FL
If this house could tell stories… Well, in the land of theatre houses DO tell stories, although typical through third party narration. This mid-century modern charmer is convenient to downtown Chicago and far from the pastoral suburbs, but it’s got some pretty bad memories for brooding Russ (Pete Penuel) and his bubbly wife Bev (Leslie Penuel). They not only lost a son, but they also lost their sense of community when that community rejected their son. Now the city growing and as the “Race Problem” creeping out of the central city. Russ stiffs his sanctimonious neighbors by selling to a black family, and the cycle of block busting and red lining begins to work out from The Loop to Skokie.
This story plays out in two chapters, one in the pre-civil rights era and one on modern times. There are parallels in the social situation as well at the story line, and ironic cast doubling is mandatory. Dan (Peter Penuel) is a strong yet stiff man, he has a boiling point and when he reached it he’s not afraid to tell Pastor Jim (Logan Currant) to screw himself. In the second act he’s more comic; he’s the guy out in the back digging up his own past to lay drainage to a koi pond. Loquacious Karl (Cooksley) maintains his voice as he goes from over bearing racist in act one to an under underwhelming racist in act two. The black couple (Gabby Brown and Robert Wright) undergoes the classic transformation that we know from television; they begin as low paid menials then morph into opportunist snappy comic characters who almost blend in with white society.
The first act accurately captures the fear and santimonium of the white flight I recall from my distant youth: “Blacks prefer to live with other blacks, community is based on uniformity, and housing prices will drop.” But Karl sets up a brilliant joke when discussing sports preferences, “I don’t see any ski Negros” is a subtle set up to what must be the funniest joke in the second act, and that’s were all the humor pays off. Writer Norris even slips in a few astonishingly racist jokes, but there no disclaimer of “it’s all in good fun”; he acknowledges this is a biting satire on race and gentrification and how uneasy it is for anyone to get along.
For more information on Theatre Downtown, please visit http://www.theatredowntown.net