Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
Also see Zander's review of A Chorus Line
Kendra Ellis-Connor (Tamara Tunie), sitting on a chair by herself and privately dismayed, wiggles her leg. Her son Jamal, 18 or so, has not been seen in hours and she hopes for some word. The play opens in a police station waiting room in Miami-Dade County. A white police officer, Paul Larkin (Luke Smith), new to his position, converses with the African-American Kendra. He reveals little and she presses. She has a doctorate in psychology, is a professor, and has done all she could to ensure that her son will not be a victim. Larkin is defensive, on edge, and by the book. Berated, he responds. The verbal jabbing escalates and Kendra grows more desperate by the moment.
She is separated from her husband Scott (Michael Hayden), who is white and is, one surmises, seeing a white woman. An FBI worker, he finally arrives at the station. Kendra and Scott find themselves face to face. Accusations carry forward. This much is evident: each loves son Jamal. Further, they still care for one another. They cannot budge protocol: Officer Larkin responds, to a degree, when Kendra pleads and/or berates him. Alone on the stage for a moment, he assails his own predicament with a two word expletive.
Kendra's emotive/personal self is in turmoil and Tunie captures her moods which flip in an instant, given the dire situation. She is fretful and intuitive. Kendra tries, with her cell phone, a variety of approaches to entice her son to reach back to her. Nothing. She knows only that there has been an incident and that he is missing.
Scott is a fuse of a man who could be set off instantly. Late to the scene and scolded by his wife, he responds by standing up to her. Through Hayden's portrayal, one senses that this is a complicated individual, one who is torn. He wants the best for his son and this, he implies, will occur when the young man soon enrolls at West Point. Scott recently bought a Lexus for his son. He says to his wife, "I didn't walk out on him. I walked out on you." A bit later, she tells Scott that he walked out the door, and later says, "You're a disgrace."
The tenor of the play shifts further with the arrival, relatively late, of Lieutenant John Stokes (Andre Ware), a major physical presence, who takes charge of the case. It is now around 5 a.m. and the clock in the room indicates that the drama on stage began 65 minutes earlier. One is able to watch as the minutes expire. Jamal hasn't been seen since 8 p.m. or so. Stokes, unlike Larkin, is seasoned and he, for better or worse, knows this territory.
Tamara Tunie is a revelation as Kendra, a woman with instincts and knowledgesomeone who is already haunted as she anticipates tragedy. Hayden's Scott holds his own with her. Luke Smith plays the jittery Paul Larkin with a reality performance as he inhabits a man just beginning a career who is caught within conflicts of duty and conscience. Ware, as Stokes, is dominant during the telling conclusion of this play.
Boyd, for this 85 minute piece, wisely varies pacing. Effective throughout, American Son is impossibly upsetting as it opensand astonishingly disquieting when Demos-Brown's characters have concluded the dialogue. Brian Prather's most appropriate set features maximum detail.
At a time of intense racial turmoil in this country, people vocalize about police and policing ... we haven't the answers. American Son, a play of perspectives, is profound. It is a searing and saddening experience for those on and off stage; the pervasive current performance raises wrenching questions and wrestles with response.
American Son continues on the main stage at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, through July 9th, 2016. For tickets, call (413) 236-8888 or visit barringtonstageco.org.