Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Goodman Theatre

Also see John's review of Accidental Death of an Anarchist

Scott Jaeck, Alex Weisman, Eddie Bennett and Barbara Garrick
How is it that an oppressed minority can become an oppressor itself? Thomas Bradshaw's new play in its world premiere production at the Goodman explores that question in the context of African-American attitudes toward homosexuality. Set in 1983, just as the AIDS epidemic had grown to alarming proportions, Mary provides a fable of the Jennings family—landed gentry who are descendants of slave owners—and their housekeeper Mary, herself a descendant of the slaves the Jennings' ancestors owned. When the Jennings' son David comes home for a college break with his gay boyfriend Jonathan, the conflict arises, not between David and his conservative parents as you might expect, but between the gay couple and Mary, who believes Jonathan has led her beloved David into a life of homosexual sin. Mary of course is too loyal an employee and too deferential to her employers to confront David or Jonathan directly, so she devises a secret scheme to "protect" David from Jonathan.

Bradshaw admits in the program notes that he doesn't write psychological realism, and his characters are drawn broadly. David (Alex Weisman) and Jonathan (Eddie Bennett) are the first to appear and, like the characters to follow, they meet all the requirements of their stereotypes. The gay lovers wear pink, are super-enthusiastic and more than a little effeminate. David's father James (Scott Jaeck) is a macho retired military intelligence officer and his mother Dolores (Barbara Garrick), who works for the Veterans' Administration, is all southern belle. (Based on these job descriptions, the Jennings seem to live in the DC area and why Bradshaw has placed them in Maryland rather than Virginia is unclear, but they do have southern accents. I had to look to see if Maryland had been a slave state, as indeed it was until 1864.) Mary (Myra Lucretia Taylor) is a dead ringer for Aunt Jemima or Hattie McDaniel's Mammy in Gone with the Wind: wise and confident, but subservient to her employers. With these cardboard characters, the first hour of this 90-minute intermissionless play seems like an extended comedy sketch. At first, it appears that Bradshaw's purpose in drawing his characters so broadly is to lampoon the stereotypes, but in the last half-hour it becomes evident that Bradshaw is more interested in the ideas behind his play than in character.

In the last thirty minutes, he starts to offer an answer to the question stated at the top of this review. He posits that prejudices are the result of belief systems formed by the information their believers are given. He brings in the story of Plato's "Cave" to make his point. In that story, prisoners in a cave—who see only shadows of people on the wall—believe the shadows are reality. When one prisoner is taken to the surface and shown the real world, the prisoner brings that larger, more accurate set of information to the skeptical prisoners below. Bradshaw contends that belief systems formed through religious teachings are distorted when passages in the Bible are taught and cited selectively. Paternalistic whites like James and Dolores can find support in the Bible for their belief that blacks are inferior to whites. Homophobes can cite the presumed prohibition of gay sex in Leviticus without acknowledging the apparent validation of same-sex love in the Old Testament story of David and Jonathan. Mary, who is illiterate as the play begins, only knows the portions of the Bible that have been read to her by others, and it is those sections—those "shadows" to return to the Plato's "Cave" analogy—that influence her beliefs. Bradshaw shows how belief systems can change as the information given to believers changes—that beliefs are far more fluid than we might think.

Mary has some good laughs in its first hour and the cast, as directed by May Adrales, delivers them with an energetic and comic gusto. The final 20-30 minutes take a sharp turn and become more didactic, so audiences should not come to this show expecting a traditional comedy. It's an entertaining, but thought-provoking play that offers some insights and theories that may keep you and your theater companions occupied for a longer period than the time it takes to see this short play.

Mary will be performed through March 6, 2011, in the Goodman's Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago. For ticket information, visit, the box office, or call 312-443-3800.

Photo: Liz Lauren

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