REVIEW: Blue Door (Victory Gardens)

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Victory Gardens presents:

Blue Door

 

by Tanya Barfield
directed by Andrea J. Dymond
through February 28th (more info)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

Tanya Barfield’s Pulitzer-nominated Blue Door is mired in the heaviness of academia and leavened by the poetic treatment of events so horrific they seem to defy the very beauty inherent to poetry. That dichotomy makes for a frustrating evening at the Victory Gardens Biograph.

bluedoor On the one hand, Blue Door is a densely packed introspection into history rendered dusty dry by the cerebral self-examination of a mathematician protagonist. On the other hand, Barfield has penned a devastating, multi-dimensional drama that could be a companion piece to the photographic history of James Allen’s “Without Sanctuary.”) Allen and Barfield have no connection that I know of, other than each mined art from the same harsh historical foundation. And if you’ve seen Allen’s work, you may well find it rushing up through your memory in the final, harrowing moments of Blue Door.

Those moments are tough and necessary, arriving as Ivy League math professor Lewis (Bruce A. Young) finally faces the demons that have destroyed his marriage, his career and his sense of self. In the 90 minutes leading up to that emotional breakthrough, Barfield loads her two-hander with a multi-generational litany of sorrows. Wife gone, career in tatters, Lewis finds his home filled with ghosts. Beginning before the Civil War with Lewis’ great-great grandmother and continuing through a family tree afflicted with tragic, strange fruit through decade upon decade, Lewis confronts the woes of a Job. His debilitating personal history is by no means exaggerated – click on any decent U.S. history site and you’ll find many a real-life story that’s far worse. But compressed into a one-act play, Lewis’ family feels more representative than authentic, an overwhelmingly inclusive outline rather than an organically unfolding biography.

The other crucial problem lies with the exposition. It dominates. Andrea J. Dymond’s capable direction can’t change the imbalance of explanation outweighing action. Of course, Lewis’ ghosts are storytellers, so a degree of telling is inevitable. Even so, the drama loses urgency as recitations overshadow events. That’s a shame, because those ghosts – the great-grandfather born into slavery; the hobo grandfather whose life and death call to mind both Robert Earl Hayes and Emmett Till; the alcoholic father who beats his son bloody – are fascinating both as pages from history and as personal narratives. The other man in Lewis’ long night’s journey into day is his brother Rex, a drug addict whose failures provide a telling cracked-mirror image to Lewis’ successes. Lindsay Smiling portrays all of them (as well as Lewis’ great-great grandmother and his grandmother) with vibrancy that’s electric. He’s also cringe-inducing in his pin-point portrayal of race-based humiliation.

Blue%20doo Lewis, by contrast, is problematic, especially when he gets started on subjects such as “the psychological perception of time” as it applies to higher mathematics. He’s an academic, but by having him so often speak in the ultra-erudite language of the very well educated, Barfield leaches the story of some momentum.

The incidents of racism recounted from Lewis’ life – sparking unspoken unease at an otherwise all-white at a cocktail party, an assumption by whites that he’s an expert on racial matters – seem trivial when compared to what his forebears dealt with. It’s only gradually that Barfield unveils just how scarred her protagonist has been by his family history and other peoples’ reactions to the color of his skin. “No matter how many polysyllabic words come out of your mouth, no matter how many tweed suits you wear,” there will always be people harboring the suspicion that you stole those suits, Lewis bitterly notes.

Barfield employs humor to fine effect in the catalyst of Lewis’ crisis – when a student asks a question about Heidegger, Lewis thinks he’s been called a “house nigger.” Without that element of preposterousness , the professor’s lifetime-in-the-making predicament would be almost too depressing to contemplate. But such contemplation is crucial if “Never forget, never again” is ever to be anything more than a bumper sticker. Blue Door (the title comes from the great-great grandmother’s practice of painting the door blue in order to keep night terrors out and family spirits in) opens a portal to history. If only what we glimpsed there were more dramatically resonant and less like chapters in a text-book .

Rating: ★★½

Blue Door, by Tanya Barfield, continues through Feb. 28 at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln. Tickets are $20 – $48. For more information, go to www.victorygardens.org or call 773/871-3000.

CREATIVE TEAM
Tanya Barfield (playwright), Charlie Cooper (light design), Andre Pluess (sound design), Liviu Pasare (video projections), Judith Lundberg (costume design), Michelle Medvin (stage manager)

CAST: Bruce A. Young, Lindsay Smiling