The Story at Philadelphia Theatre Company
Tracey Scott Wilson's The Story is a play that asks a lot of questions - questions about truth, questions about integrity, questions about ambition, questions about class, questions about race. It's not, however, a play with a lot of answers. But in this case, that's a good thing. And in the terrific, exciting production it receives from the Philadelphia Theatre Company, the way it poses its questions is what will remain with you.
The Story begins with a tragedy: a young, white, married couple makes some wrong turns while driving in a dangerous part of an unnamed city, and the husband is shot to death by a black assailant. The police are investigating, but so is a local newspaper, and the crime story becomes less important than the way the newspaper conducts itself while chasing the story.
The action soon switches to the newspaper and the office of its "Outlook" section, designed to cover stories about the black community but with an unwritten mandate to put a positive spin on those stories. Yvonne has just been hired as a reporter there, and she has impeccable credentials, including a private school education. Her new boss Pat makes it clear that she does not take Yvonne seriously - Yvonne's generation "just doesn't grasp the sacrifices" that Pat's generation made in the civil rights struggle. Yvonne struggles to maneuver the delicate channels of office politics with the covert help of Jeff, a white reporter for the Metro section (and Yvonne's secret boyfriend). Meanwhile, Neil, a reporter much more skilled at office politics (not to mention basic journalism), is pursuing every lead he can find on the murder, and Yvonne is anxious to keep up and prove herself. She soon finds the breakthrough she wants in Latisha, who gives the privileged Yvonne entrée to the secret world of gangs. Yvonne writes a story, "Confessions of a Girl Gang," which presents Latisha as a bundle of contradictions: a cultured girl from Philadelphia with a "pseudo-African name" who speaks fluent Italian - just like Yvonne - yet who also claims to be the person who committed the murder.
But wait - wasn't the killer a male? Is Latisha real, or a figment of Yvonne's imagination? How can Yvonne prove her story? ("I'll call all the brothers in Philly to see if they know a sister called Latisha," says Neil with a sneer.) And how can Yvonne make sure that justice is done, and stay out of jail herself? To do that, the truth will have to come out - but too many lies may have been told already.
The Story has a lot of "ripped from the headlines" moments. In an interview in the play's handout program, playwright Wilson says that Janet Cooke's dismissal from the Washington Post two decades ago was her initial inspiration. In addition, the killing has some parallels to the Charles Stuart case in Boston (which is even referred to in the dialogue at one point). But Wilson uses real events as a starting point for making some provocative points of its own.
Wilson plays with perceptions in a refreshing and entertaining way. As Yvonne and Neil each prepare for a lunch meeting, they consult with their respective "advisors" (Jeff and Pat) for advice. Seeing them say one thing, then turn to their advisors and say what's really on their minds, is hilarious and a great way of illuminating the characters. It shows how two-faced the characters are, and shows how intimate conversations can reveal and conceal at the same time. The prime concern is not the killing, but, as one character puts it, "What did he say about me?"
The only major flaw in The Story is its brief length. In a play that is only about 80 minutes long, there's no need to insert an intermission - even if it does come at a logical point in the plot. The intermission seems too much like padding.
Director Maria Mileaf has gotten strong, vivid performances out of her cast. It's hard to mention a single standout, but Pamela Isaacs as Pat and Kenajuan Bentley as Neil bring a great sense of knowing wit to their roles. Isaacs is delightfully imperious as the boss who is shocked when she finds that not everyone reads her column, while Bentley brings great force to the role of the ambitious reporter who may end up being the hero in spite of himself. Strong, believable work is also turned in by Michael Polak as Jeff and Christine Long as the victim's widow, both of whom are called to question their most basic beliefs.
As Yvonne, the reporter who sets off a firestorm, Brienin Bryant is tentative at first; she seems to be as overwhelmed by her role as her character is. But her performance gathers more power as the show goes on, and Bryant proves herself up to the challenges of a demanding role that requires her to reveal herself gradually.
Special mention should also be made of the sleek set design by Neil Patel and Timothy R. Mackabee that is elegant but never calls attention to itself.
The Story ends on an unnerving note; one gets the sense that the provocative events seen so far are just the tip of the iceberg. But you won't feel cheated by the ending of The Story; you'll be left with questions that will be rattling around in your head for days.
The Story runs through Sunday, February 27 at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Street. Ticket prices range from $30 to $45, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the PTC Box Office at 215-985-0420, online at www.phillytheatreco.com, or by visiting the box office.
- Tim Dunleavy