BWW Review: SMART PEOPLE at The Liminal Playhouse
Americans talk about racial and cultural identity as if walking on eggshells. As with so many hot button issues in the 21stcentury, we have become polarized on these topics because it is easier to lean completely into a position rather than explore the gray territory of nuance and contradiction. In her play Smart People, Lydia R. Diamond is intent on having a conversation that, if it doesn't entirely resist cliché and stereotype, at least uses them as devices to trigger a messier, more complex dialogue.
The schematic prologue positions the four characters on blocks of light as they are introduced with interviews in which they seem to be challenged by authority figures. Valerie (Angela D. Williams) is struggling with a director while rehearsing the role of Portia in a production of Julius Caesar, Jackson (Louis Robert Thompson) is a trauma surgeon under the thumb of an obstinant hospital administrator, his friend Brian (Ryan Lash) is a professor defending his controversial study to scientifically quantify racism in whites, and Ginny (Bridget Kim) also an academic and colleague of Brian, is studying how Asian American women react to stress. The gender and racial identity of each character are crucial to how they relate to each other and also how the audience receives them.
If it is the business of contemporary plays to subvert conventions and defy expectations, and I believe it is, then Diamond accomplishes a lot here. While there are not shocking narrative twists, the relationships don't always develop in easy ways, and all of these characters provoke each other in fresh ways that bring the playwrights themes into high relief. They are also possessed of a healthy degree of self-awareness. Being smart arguably includes the ability to step outside of one's self, and before the evening is done, all four of these smart people will do that, and in so doing, challenge us in our own biases.
Smart People was first produced in 2014, and although it is set in late 2008 and in the days around the January 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama as the first African American U.S. President, she was already viewing that turning point through a critical lens that only seems more acute in the time of Trump, Charleston, Black Lives Matter, and the crisis on the southern border. However sharp and focused her commentary feels, it also now begins to feel illusory. Are these conversations happening now? Are people taking the kind of risk that we witness in Valerie and Brian's choices?
The cast is top notch, as smart as the title and these characters demand of them. They embody the core conflicts in solid fashion, but some of the impacts come from the more casual asides, small moments nearly thrown aside that indicate that the actors have done their work alone and together. This is the most natural and unforced work I've seen from Angela D. Williams, and she accents Valerie's strength with a sly, girlish nature. Her confidence allows that. I have always found these same easy qualities in Louis Robert Thompson, who here uses them as cover for some of Jackson's questionable behavior. Ryan Lash is an expert on crafting modern male anxiety and incorporates tortured intellectualism easily into that mix, while Bridget Kim gives Ginny a brittle quality to her high-strung Alpha personality. Ginny absolutely believes she is always the brightest person in any equation.
Without giving anything away, Diamond constructs a climax that is somewhat explosive but allows her people some measure of escape. Director Tony Prince has no taste for overblown melodrama and guides the action with subtlety, but the play ends on a knife-edge, balancing resolution and a curious note of uncertainty that I'm still pondering a day later.
The Sound Design by Richard McGrew was, as usual, distinctive and tasteful, although there was an overuse of one particular selection for scene transitions; it was an apt choice, it just felt like perhaps two times too many. The set by Kevin D. Gawley was perfectly minimal yet evocative, and Keith Kimmel's lighting demarcated the action with clarity.
Smart People is funny and engrossing, encasing its difficult explorations in sharp and caustic dialogue that keep us from judging its characters when they cross the lines of decency and decorum. Although set in a very specific time and place, it is just as pertinent to the struggle with identity in today's America.
|March 28, 29, 30, April 4, 5, & 6 @ 7:30 pm
March 31 & April 7 at 2:00 pm
Tickets: $20 in advance, $22 at door
The Liminal Playhouse
Henry Clay Theatre
604 South Third Street
Louisville, KY 40202