Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Caroline, or Change
Also see Susan's review of The Elephant Man
The Studio Theatre's production of Caroline, or Change lives up to all expectations for this complex musical play. Playwright Tony Kushner (book and lyrics) and composer Jeanine Tesori have crowded a lot of issues into the drama, centering on change at individual, family, and societal levels, and director Greg Ganakas has worked hard to bring them all out.
If this show is going to work, it needs towering central performances, and Studio's production has them: Julia Nixon as Caroline, the "implacable, indestructible" maid to a Jewish family in 1963 Lake Charles, La., and Max Talisman as Noah Gellman, the 8-year-old son of her employer. Nixon makes the character's frustrations and conflicts vividly real and wrenching, and Talisman gives an amazingly assured performance in his professional debut, never settling for the cheap laugh and unafraid to show the character's genuine pain.
Kushner has incorporated some pieces of his own childhood in Lake Charles in the framework for Caroline, but he uses the Gellman family and Caroline as a microcosm for the larger society. Change is everywhere in 1963: the year of the March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; the church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four African-American girls; and the assassination of President Kennedy.
Noah's family is facing upheaval of its own, beginning with the death of Noah's mother from cancer. Noah's father Stuart (Bobby Smith), a clarinetist, can't deal with his grief and withdraws from other people. In an attempt to restore normalcy to the household, Stuart has married his late wife's friend Rose (Tia Speros), a New York Jew learning to cope in an unfamiliar culture. (She tries to be kind to Caroline, but her efforts - and the fact that she mispronounces the name as "Carolyn" - come across as patronizing.)
Amid all this stress, Noah considers Caroline the only person he can rely on. He sees her strength, but not her own sorrows: a broken marriage, an oldest son in Vietnam, three younger children at home, and hardly enough money to support them all. The relationship between Noah and Caroline reaches the crisis point after Rose tells Caroline she can keep any loose change Noah leaves in his pockets, and Noah tries to reach out to Caroline and her family by intentionally leaving coins in the pockets.
Amid all this seriousness, Kushner adds a whimsical third level of reality: Caroline's imagination. As she works in isolation in the swampy basement of the Gellman home, Caroline listens to the radio (a Motown trio played by Monique Paulwell, Omoro Omoighe, and Kearstin Piper Brown in glittering fringed dresses); the gentle voice of the washing machine (earth mother Allison Blackwell); and the deep, sensual sound of the dryer (Elmore James). Blackwell and James also appear as the all-seeing moon and a bus grieving for President Kennedy.
The entire cast is strong and works as an ensemble, but special mention should go to Otts Laupus as Rose's father, an unrepentant socialist, and Trisha Jeffrey as Caroline's outspoken daughter. Their scene together strikes sparks.
The fine six-piece orchestra conducted by Howard Breitbart works constantly from just offstage. Debra Booth's minimalist set, which consists primarily of a metal staircase, a second-floor catwalk, and a red door, allows the action to flow unobtrusively.