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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Park Square's The Left Hand Singing examines the legacy of loss caused by violent resistance to Civil Rights

Park Square Theatre's production of Barbara Lebow's The Left Hand Singing tells two interlinked stories from 1964's momentous Freedom Summer and tells both with affecting grace.

It's 1964. Honey, an experience-toughened black college student from Alabama, and Linda, a naive and idealistic Jewish student from New York, share a cluttered dorm room. They argue back and forth in taut, harsh and funny banter, bound by deep affection for one another. Into the room comes Wesley, the idealistic son of a liberal Protestant minister from North Carolina, who is bent on recruiting fellow students to go to Mississippi for the summer to register black voters. Linda is committed to going, but Honey vacillates; she understands how brutish the white response to Civil Rights will be.

The scene flips to the three students' parents, waiting outside the office of a Mississippi sheriff. Their children vanished on a dark Mississippi night, just as the murdered civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner disappeared. Officially, nothing is known of Honey, Linda or Wesley's whereabouts.

Playwright Lebow's layered script alternates flashes from the student's growing relationships in the dorm room, with the lives of their three parents and their evolving relationships that reach across cultures and time and reflect the ideals and personalities of their children.

Set designer Joel Sass neatly accommodates the two parallel stories and their time frames with a simple front stage of stylized gray and black geometric forms, on which the ongoing story of bereaved parents plays out. When rice paper-like panels slide back, they reveal a lively college dorm room in detailed realism, rather like opening up the cabinet doors of an old color TV.

In sensitive directing, Carolyn Levy draws strong performances from her seven actors and captures the duality in Lebow's script of stereotyped racial thinking that stalks and disrupts genuine friendship.

As engaging Honey, Christiana Clark convinces. Honey is a complex young woman. Raised within institutionalized racism, she has learned to avoid trouble. She's bright, funny and feels deeply, but with the pressure to excel at school as the first child from her family to attend college and the pressure from her friends to join Freedom Summer mount, she turns angry and fierce. Accomplished Marvette Knight plays her diminutive mother, Maddy. Like her daughter, Maddy is bright and capable, and she's wary of relationships with whites. But with their mutual loss, she opens up to the friendship of Linda's mother and Wesley's father, like a flower to sunlight. Knight's Maddy ages credibly, becomes the teacher her daughter aimed to be and harbors the same damaging defensiveness as Honey.

Jennifer J. Phillips's Linda is fresh, funny and charged with unquestioning idealism; she's also falling in love, shyly, almost unwittingly, with nerdy Wesley. Her mother, Bea, ably played by Jodi Kellogg, ages as the years pass, trying on different styles and embracing different good works as she seeks to fill the void left by the loss of her only child.

Chris Kind gathers strength as Wesley. He plays him as a clean-cut and earnest young man. Like Linda, he's tender, sensitive and determined. He, too, feels the pressures of being an only child, having lost his brother to the Korean War. Philip Callen taps the heart of his compassionate father, the Reverend Partridge, a man trapped in loss, who seeks in his later years to fulfill Wesley's idealism. As his shattered wife, Claire, Kirby Bennett wraps herself in the body language of pathological emotional withdrawal, and her bone-chilling tea scene with Maddy and Bea is mini tour-de-force.

The costumes in Elin Anderson's design reflect the fashions of 1964 and of the ensuing years up to 1994, as the play tracks the effect on the parents' lives of their devastating loss. Michael P. Kittel floods the cramped dorm room with the vibrant light of youth, but shades the parent's front stage in the tones of grief.

The Left Hand Singing is a strong play, even as one recognizes the conscious balance of its structure, with its three representative ethnic groups, and I believe it could benefit from some trimming toward its close. That said, Park Square's uniformly fine production enfolded me in its drama and loss.

The Left Hand Singing Park Square Theatre, April 27 May 13, 2007. Tuesdays Sundays 7:30 p.m., Sundays matinees 2:00 p.m. Tickets $32 - $35. 20, West 7th Place, St. Paul, 1633. 651-291-7005. www.parksquaretheatre.org.


- Elizabeth Weir



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