BWW Reviews: The Ensemble Theatre's RACE is Timely, Relevant, and Poignant
The Ensemble Theatre has a reputation for producing thought-provoking and intellectually stimulating art. From this season alone, they have moved hearts and minds with their skillful productions of THE NACIREMA SOCIETY and KNOCK ME A KISS. Their current production of David Mamet's RACE masterfully written RACE beautifully continues that trend and gives audiences plenty to talk and think about.
RACE is set in a law office in the present day. Charles Strickland, a Caucasian man accused of raping an African-American woman, has fired his attorney. He approaches Jack Lawson and Henry Brown to take his case and defend him in the court of law. His motivations for seeking their services are instantly evident, as Jack Lawson is Caucasian and Henry Brown is African-American. As the plot unfolds over the course of the roughly 100 minute play, here split into two acts with a brief intermission, the audience is allowed to examine the affective and effective power of race, the implications race has on many faucets of American life, and the ongoing conflicts race creates, even at the subconscious level.
Eileen J. Morris' direction of the play is astute and poignantly powerful. She wonderfully guides her cast through line deliveries that make the dialogue feel organic and fresh, while emphasizing the multifaceted problem that race still is. Also, she has purposefully and magnificently embraced David Mamet's writing style, which allows the cast to throw information and ideas at the audience so quickly and with such fervor that in order to follow the plot we must catch it and retain it for later access. We mentally dog-ear moments in our memory to think about, discuss, and again mull over in the hours and days after seeing the show. I can only begin to imagine the inspired and insightful conversations this cast had with Eileen J. Morris and each other in the rehearsal process, but, whatever they were, they have truly allowed them to forge a fantastic production with solid and stirring performances.
Leading the play is Kevin Daugherty as Jack Lawson and Mirron Willis as Henry Brown. Both actors turn in such astoundingly resolute and perfected performances that the audience is whisked away into the world on the stage. Each man's character is a fully formed and thought out human being. Their motives for their actions are relatable and complicity in line with their characterizations. Both Kevin Daugherty and Mirron Willis imbue these lawyers with a tangibly clever skill for deft critical thinking, which empowers their characters to tackle many issues regarding race head on, presenting an intellectual feast for the audience.
As Henry Brown, Mirron Willis is bombastic. He creates a character that is both a seasoned lawyer and a bit of a hot head. He purposefully allows his anger and disgust to motivate and commandeer some of his actions, proving his point in a loud and brash manner. He appears to fear nothing and is always ready for the fight. Yet, even with this more rugged approach, his intellect is always on display.
Kevin Daugherty's Jack Lawson is seemingly more thoughtful and even tempered. He appears more caring and showcases a strong skill set for teaching. As the play moves towards its tumultuous climax; however, it becomes clear that his approach to law is to maintain, as much as possible, a calm demeanor and a pleasant façade, despite his own roiling and rollicking personal sentiments.
Susan, played to perfection by Joy Brunson, is quite easily the play's most intriguing character. Her character's actions and motives are the most convoluted and forcefully bring the issue of race and its implications front and center in the drama. Luckily, David Mamet poses questions without providing answers, so the audience is left to determine how race factored into any of the various forms of surreptitious deceit that Joy Brunson's Susan engages in. Joy Brunson's entire performance is exceptionally inspired and fascinating. David Mamet gives Susan the final line of the show, which Joy Brunson pristinely delivers with remarkable rage and animosity. As that line resoundingly resonates in the hearts, minds, and souls, the audience is left to figure the riddle of Susan out on our own or with the help of those fortunate enough to have sat through the performance with us.
As the character the plot centers around, Justin Doran is rather slimy as Charles Strickland. He swears he is innocent, but as the plot progresses more and more evidence seems to stack up against him. Justin Doran capably exposes a character who is willing to play whatever game is necessary to get him acquitted or to get a jury to decide he is not guilty.
James V. Thomas' gorgeous Scenic Design expertly recreates a sumptuously modern attorney's office. The use of lines and colors vividly display the wealth and prestige of the office. The addition of modern pieces of art is thoughtful and really showcases how contemporary and modern the lawyers are.
Jacqueline Wright's Costume Design features attractive suits and business wear. Each article of clothing appears well-tailored to the wearer. Like the set, they also emphasize the modernity of the characters and the play.
Eric Marsh's Lighting Design dexterously keeps the law office in realistic lighting. There is one moment in the third scene where the lights of the office dim and the gobos that create an illusion of a wall of windows provides a majority of the lighting. This affect really allows the audience to focus on the weighty and important dialogue, signaling that this moment is the most significant and important part of the play.
Adrian Washington's Sound Design nicely incorporates the sound of a ticking clock in between scenes to indicate the passage of time.
The Ensemble Theatre's production of David Mamet's RACE is a timely, relevant, and poignant exploration of the problem that is race in current American society. For as much as we like to pretend that we have moved away from it completely, The Ensemble Theatre's production of RACE and even David Mamet himself exquisitely reminds audiences that "Race is the most incendiary topic in our history. And the moment it comes out, you cannot close the lid on that box."
RACE runs at The Ensemble Theatre through June 2, 2013. For more information or tickets, please visit http://www.ensemblehouston.com or call (713) 520 - 0055.
Photos courtesy of The Ensemble Theatre.
Kevin Daugherty, Joy Brunson, Justin Doran, Mirron Willis
Joy Brunson and Kevin Daugherty
Joy Brunson, Mirron Willis, and Kevin Daugherty