BWW Reviews: BEST OF ENEMIES Enlightens as It Entertains
I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Circuit Playhouse's production of Mark St. Germain's BEST OF ENEMIES - a civics lesson or an evening at the theatre. As I settled into my seat and gazed at the essentially bare set (a few platforms and chairs), I listened to bits and snatches of speeches and recollections by the likes of Barry Goldwater, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, and "ordinary" people affected by the changes wrought by Civil Rights legislation and, in particular, the desegregation of schools. While waiting for the play to begin, I recalled just having seen MARY POPPINS last weekend at Playhouse on the Square; I thought of "Just a Spoonful of Sugar" making the medicine go down - and considered Playhouse's crowd-pleasing musical version of John Waters' HAIRSPRAY, which drew theatre-hungry crowds just a few weeks ago. Waters, I thought, had the right idea: The seriousness of racial injustice was made delightfully palatable by the sweetness and humor of the songs in that show. I dreaded what was to follow. However, like the main characters of the play I was about to see, I had my own misconceptions, for BEST OF ENEMIES held many surprises for me - and all of them good.
The play itself is set in Durham, North Caroline, and based on the true story of polar opposites brought together to work on the desegregation of schools in Durham. As the "oil" and "water" that don't mix, Claire D. Kolheim as black activist "Ann Atwater" and Gregory W. Boller as Klansman "C.P. Ellis" offer memorable lead performances as the iniitally mistrustful co-chairs. Each has a preconceived notion of the other based on the racial tensions which have found them at opposite spectrums. The "outsider" who has brought them together is "Bill Riddick," who is willing for both sides to explore and argue fully for the positions they hold. This creates a stressful challenge for Atwater and Ellis, and in the first meetings in which they appear together, a harried Riddick is always present. However, when he excuses himself in a later scene, he requests that Atwater and Ellis collate and staple documents; and, with no words passed between them, they finally accomplish a task: It's a humorously infused bit that relies on the inherent comic timing of the two leads - and they don't disappoint.
The play unfolds in a series of short, staccato-like scenes, often tense and (in these times as in those) politically incorrect. (There's a wonderful verbal explosion at one point in the play when an exasperated Riddick - weary of the verbal sparring between Atwater and Ellis - finally vomits forth every offensive term he has seemingly ever heard; and the language issue is "dead in the water.") What is compelling is how each scene, like a sharply pointed pick, chips away at the block of icy hatred that has separated these two. Ellis, the character in most need of changing, is the only protagonist shown to have a relationship with another character in the play; his wife "Mary" is a beleaguered mother of three who has begun to realize, if not the changes in society, the changes in herself as a woman and a wife. Thus, Ellis is challenged with change on not only a social level, but a personal one as well.
All of the characters have one-on-one scenes with each other; when Riddick stops at the Ellis home with some papers, he and Mary have an interesting encounter. She explains her absence during the community meetings - and offers something the other characters (as well as those of us watching) need to consider: The divisions that separate people are not only drawn by differences in color; they are deep and secreted within. In one of the last scenes of the play, it is Mary as well who will offer her husband something to remember and paraphrase in his final remarks to the committees.
Ultimately, it isn't what separates Atwater and Ellis that speaks to me in this play; it is the common experiences that they share as human beings. In short, not only is the play about social change: It is about personal change. These characters, initially opposed to each other, find that the members of the groups they represent can turn on them and try to destroy their lives (or, at least, their livelihoods).
Like the characters who held misconceived notions about each other, I realized that I had misconceived notions about what I now was watching. By the play's conclusion, I had become close to all the characters. The final image of Ellis contrasts strongly to the Klan-bedecked, whiskey-bearing redneck spewing racial filth at the beginning of the play; and Atwater has laid aside her pocket knife with an appreciation for the kindnesses that her one-time enemies have shown her. All of this unfolds in an uninterrupted ninety minutes, with intense, swift direction by John Maness, himself no stranger to small-scale, strongly dramatic work.
I especially like the two leads. Ms. Kolheim would be delightful in the Octavia Spencer role in THE HELP. Her portrayal is angry, sassy, subtle, moving - in a relatively short time, she has established herself as one of Memphis' best actresses (with plays like RAGTIME and HAIRSPRAY in her resume). Mr. Boller, too, is splendid. His hulking frame (he was the Creature in MARY SHELLEY'S FRANKENSTEIN - and an excellent "Stanley Kowalski" in STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE) probably has placed limitations on the types of roles he could easily enact, but he is certainly unlimited in the grace notes that he gives to his "bull in a china shop" performance here. (I don't mean to neglect the excellent J. Jerome Rogers and Erin Shelton, either. They certainly provide sturdy underpinnings for two leads.) Through September 13. Photo courtesy of THE CIRCUIT PLAYHOUSE.