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BWW Review: STRAIGHT WHITE MEN at Conciliation Lab

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Young Jean Lee's play is at Conciliation Lab

BWW Review: STRAIGHT WHITE MEN at Conciliation Lab

Can we find empathy for the straight white man?

That's the question posed by Young Jean Lee in her 2014 play "Straight White Men," now on view at Conciliation Lab. Who has a thought to spare for those in our society who have maximum privilege?

Lee leads us into this question with blasting hip hop music and flashing lights. It's a Christmas show, but only in an ancillary way. Christmas is the excuse for four men to reunite: a recently widowed father, Ed, and his three adult sons, Matt, Jake and Drew. But the play is "under the control of people who are not straight white men," as specified by the playwright. We're under the aegis of Person in Charge 1, played by Lucretia Marie, and Person in Charge 2, played by Malakai Lee. As suggested by the writer, the Persons in Control are not straight white men. Marie and Lee announce their gender identities for us and set the tone: They are aware that "it can be upsetting when people create an environment that doesn't take your needs into account," as with the aforementioned pre-show music.

Marie and Lee take care with us, and with the four family members onstage, as they orchestrate the proceedings. "It's hard enough," explains Marie, "not being mean to people you love. It's much harder not being mean to people you think you've got a good reason to hate."

The play goes on to set just such a challenge for the audience. Brothers Drew and Jake have come from out of town on this first Christmas after their mother's death to support their father, Ed (played by Christopher Dunn). Oldest brother Matt has already been there for some time, doing the housework and temping for a social justice organization. He's got a Harvard degree, years in on a Ph.D., and a load of student loans to pay off, and his family is worried about him.

Though they're in their forties, Jake (Axle Burtness) and Drew (Adam Turck) roughhouse like 13-year-olds and replay hilarious old rituals, including the game Privilege that their late mother fashioned for them out of a Monopoly set--these overgrown kids were raised with full consciousness of their historical inheritance. Each demonstrates how he has and hasn't lived by that consciousness.

But it's Matt, affectingly embodied by Patrick Rooney, who really brings the feelings. He professes contentment in caring for Ed and making copies for a good cause, but he's showing vulnerabilities to his family that they can't tolerate, let alone understand.

Director Kelsey Cordrey makes an impressive debut with this production, giving us both the realistic and empathetic views that the playwright has crafted into the script. The cast is perfect, with Turck and Burtness somehow finding kernels of sweetness and confusion inside their characters' obnoxiousness. Dunn and Rooney are more heartbreakingly real, especially in their final confrontation. The persons in charge, Marie and Lee, incorporate both the authenticity and the archness needed to take the audience on this journey. Deejay Gray's family-room set works well, and Nia Safarr Banks's costumes capture the limp festivity of the holiday. Michael Jarrett's lighting succeeds seamlessly as it veers from naturalistic to extreme, and Cordrey's sound design is excellent.

It's not typical Christmas fare, but it is meaty and moving and very much in the spirit of the season, of humanity. Go and be nourished.

"Straight White Men"

At The Basement, 300 E. Broad St.

Through December 18

Tickets $30, with discounts for seniors, RVATA members, students and teachers

Info: theconciliationlab.org or (804) 506-3533


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