Boston Benefits from THE LUCK OF THE IRISH
Written by Kirsten Greenidge; directed by Melia Bensussen; scenic design, James Noone; costume design, Mariann S. Verheyen; lighting design, Justin Townsend; original music and sound design, David Remedios
Cast in order of appearance:
Nessa Charles, Shalita Grant; Hannah Davis, Francesca Choy-Kee; Lucy Taylor, Nikkole Salter; Rex Taylor, Victor Williams; Patty Ann Donovan, Marianna Bassham; Joe Donovan, McCaleb Burnett; Mr. Donovan, Richard McElvain; Rich Davis, Curtis McClarin; Miles Davis, Antione Gray Jr. or Jahmeel Mack; Mrs. Donovan, Nancy E. Carroll
Extension ends Sunday, May 6, Huntington Theatre Company, Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; tickets start at $25 and are available online at www.huntingtontheatre.org, by phone at 617-266-0800 or at the Calderwood Pavilion and B.U. Theatre Box Offices
Two generations of personal and political ghosts have a hovering presence in Kirsten Greenidge’s haunting new play The Luck of the Irish now on stage through May 6 in the Wimberly Theatre at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. The Huntington Theatre Company is presenting this tender and thought-provoking world premiere based on the true story of the Medford playwright’s own grandparents who in the racially divided Boston of the 1950s enlisted white friends from their culturally mixed South End neighborhood to “ghost buy” a home for them in the segregated, upscale suburb of Arlington.
Seeking better schools, quieter streets, and a three-bedroom piece of the American Dream, urban black families from the 1940s through 1960s made it a common practice to risk ostracism, assault, and even death by paying sympathetic white people to buy suburban homes for them and then turn over the deeds once they moved in – usually under cloak of night in order to prevent violence. Even the parents of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, unwelcomed as Jews in 1945, engaged in the practice, having their lawyer ghost-buy the Medford, Mass., home they wanted.
In The Luck of the Irish, Greenidge skillfully fuses the present and past, drawing parallels between the granddaughters who have inherited the hard-won family homestead and the grandparents who stood their ground against sometimes veiled discrimination, sometimes outright racial threats to stake their claim in suburbia. Greenidge brings lingering racial tensions to life anew when elderly working-class Irish couple Patty Ann and Joe Donovan – who fronted the purchase for Lucy and Rex Taylor some 50 years ago – come calling on the Taylor heirs to “take back their house.” This confrontation ignites long smoldering issues for granddaughter Hannah Davis, her husband Rich, son Miles, and sister Nessa. The apple, it turns out, doesn’t fall very far from the family tree.
As scenes from the past bump into and sometimes overlap scenes from the present, we see that young wife and mother Hannah (Francesca Choy-Kee) has inherited more than a three-bedroom Colonial from her grandmother Lucy (Nikkole Salter). She also possesses her grandmother’s intelligence, pride, and fierce maternal instinct. If she sometimes rails in situations where her husband, sister, and son take a more laid back approach, it springs from a determination to make life for her son better than what it was for her grandmother or mother. The former never felt at home in her home, even though she knew that living in the predominantly white suburbs meant better educational opportunities for her children. The latter as an adult retreated back to the inner city, finding comfort living among other black families even if it meant losing privacy, square footage, and a beautiful woodland view.
For Hannah, the move to the ’burbs to take care of her ailing grandparents – and ultimately bury them – has triggered a similar paradox of emotions. She aches to enjoy a home that she can call her own in a neighborhood that’s safe and spacious. Yet the “unwelcome” signs she sees whenever her son’s teachers call him “Sport” instead of Miles (alternately played by Antione Gray Jr. and Jahmeel Mack) make all too vivid the memories of generations of family members who suffered far more explicit denigration and name calling. Only when the hyperactive but very friendly Miles convinces her that he likes school – and that he is genuinely liked by his peers, as well – does Hannah relax a bit and begin to see that history can evolve.
What Greenidge also deftly accomplishes in The Luck of the Irish, however, is to paint her characters and situations in shades of gray, not just black and white. We see the struggles not only of the professional African American family and their descendants as they strive mightily to carve out their American Dream but also of the poor working class immigrant families who suffer their own indignities and injustices as they climb rung by rung up the ladder of hope and despair. In the young Joe and Patty Ann Donovan, Greenidge gives us a blue-collar dreamer (McCaleb Burnett), a man more comfortable quoting Robert Frost than punching a time clock, and a frustrated wife and mother of six (Marianna Bassham) who despises the unfairness of taking in other people’s laundry to make ends meet while helping Dr. Taylor (Victor Williams) and his wife buy the home on the hill that her family will never have. When Joe impulsively crosses the invisible racial barrier one sunny weekday afternoon to visit Lucy, we get a glimpse of a friendship that can never be, one between two sensitive souls who quote from Frost’s “Mending Wall” and share an unspoken desire for real and implied fences to be gone.
Director Melia Bensussen skillfully navigates her cast of present-day family members and ghosts from the past through Greenidge’s naturally rich dialog. Period-specific costumes by Mariann S. Verheyen and subtle but effective lighting changes by Justin Townsend clearly indicate when it is the late 1950s and early 2000s. At times both generations are on stage simultaneously, their actions strengthening the parallels between then and now, ancestors and heirs. One particularly haunting symbol involves the buttons that Lucy Taylor collected throughout her marriage. Serving as both memories and milestones, they are simple yet eloquent keepsakes that make Lucy’s life and spiritual presence palpable for her granddaughters and the audience.
Bensussen’s cast is a pitch-perfect ensemble of actors working in harmony with the material and each other. Choy-Kee and Salter share the same burning eyes, square jaw and erect shoulders of mother lionesses fighting for their cubs. Yet subtle differences in their personalities mark the growth from one generation to another. Choy-Kee lets her anger flow unapologetically when she perceives her son’s future to be threatened. Salter has a more reserved demeanor, quietly but firmly letting her wit and intelligence convey the fury and determination that lie within.
Parallels are also evident between Hannah’s husband Rich (Curtis McClarin) and Lucy’s husband Rex (Victor Williams). Both try to exert a calming influence on their fiery wives, often with surprisingly comical results. But again, there are generational differences. McClarin’s affability is more genuine, his wry humor serving to tease as much as placate. Williams’ begrudging acquiescence springs more from fear of reprisal than true conviction.
As the Donovans of the 1950s, Burnett and Bassham manage to garner tremendous sympathy despite their weaknesses and flaws. Burnett makes his work-allergic dreamer charming, open-minded and passionate, even though he can’t hold a job and doesn’t provide for his family. Bassham, sporting a precise South Boston working-class accent, is a bundle of anger, frustration, and broken dreams. Trapped by financial hardship and a rigid class system, she turns her self-hate and general rage on the upstart Taylors who have leapfrogged ahead of her in the socio-economic pecking order. Bassham’s sharp performance delivers a punch in the stomach while simultaneously eliciting pathos.
The early 2000 Donovans are equally effective in bringing The Luck of the Irish full circle. Bearing an uncanny likeness to his earlier self, Richard McElvain makes the elder Joe a deeply tragic figure. Muttering in the same stammering speech pattern that marks Burnett’s self-effacing character, McElvain is the broken shell of a man whose spine has visibly deteriorated under the weight of 50 years of personal failure and derision from his wife. As the elder Patty Ann, Nancy E. Carroll is now desperate and brittle. Gone are the last remaining shreds of girlish hopes, dreams and decency. The only thing this Mrs. Donovan now clings to is the deed to the Taylor homestead. Her expressionless face and empty eyes are heart-wrenching.
The only misstep in this otherwise splendid Huntington production of The Luck of the Irish is in the set design by the usually dependable James Noone. The looming three-story skeleton of dark brown slats and empty frames is a cold, impersonal backdrop that distracts attention and hampers movement. Instead of suggesting the warmth and lived-in quality of a much-prized dream home, the set emphasizes austerity and discomfort. In addition, the wooden siding inexplicably curves down and out like motocross ramps at the base of the house where the stone foundation should be. More than one actor nearly lost footing while navigating its slopes. If this wonderful new play has a future life on or off Broadway, a rethinking of what a stately suburban Boston home should look like might be in order.
In The Luck of the Irish Greenidge has given delicate yet honest voice to racial and class issues that sadly still plague us today. With great insight and subtle eloquence, she has created a thought-provoking and deeply moving new play that illuminates without ever preaching. Her characters pulsate with real life and language. They are authentic individuals, not stereotypes. Much like the late Lucy Taylor gently haunts her descendants, the memory of The Luck of the Irish will linger with lucky theatergoers long past the final blackout.
PHOTOS by T. Charles Erickson: Marianna Bassham as Patty Ann Donovan, Nikkole Salter as Lucy Taylor, Victor Williams as Rex Taylor, and McCaleb Burnett as Joe Donovan; Jahmeel Mack as Miles Davis and Francesca Choy-Kee as Hannah Davis; Nikkole Salter and McCaleb Burnett; Nikkole Salter and Victor Williams; Curtis McClarin as Rich Davis and Francesca Choy-Kee; Marianna Bassham, Nikkole Salter, and McCaleb Burnett; Nancy E. Carroll as Mrs. Donovan and Richard McElvain as Mr. Donovan