Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
Also see Fred's review of On the Grounds of Belonging
The opening sequence finds Kendra Ellis-Conner (Ami Brabson) alone with her cell phone desperately trying to reach her son Jamal. She, a professor of psychology at a Florida university, sits, well before sunrise, in a Dade County police station. Kendra grows more fretful as her calls to her 18-year-old son are not returned, and she leaves increasingly frantic voice messages. Officer Paul Larkin (John Ford-Dunker) appears and converses with Kendra. Larkin is attempting to do his job and might very well be wishing he were somewhere else. He cannot help with Jamal's whereabouts. Gradually, the officer's agitation grows as Kendra becomes more testy, demanding, and urgently upset. Frustration marks each of their moods, but Kendra's is underlined with her increasing fear of the worst of possible outcomes.
Her husband, Scott Connor (J. Anthony Crane), arrives at the station. He is an FBI agent and has been separated from Kendra for four months. He refers to their son as J most of the time, and Kendra questions the abbreviation. The emotional common denominator they currently share is heightened concern combined with steadfast love of their son. Scott, who is white, and Kendra, who is black, verbally battle with one another, but, as Demos-Brown's script evolves, the allegations and barbs they exchange diminish. They agree that the day Jamal was born was probably the best of their lives.
Kendra and Scott have sought what they considered best for their son and that includes a superior education, even if he has been one of very few students of color at school. The teenager had seemed to be on track to attend West Point, but Kendra explains to Scott that this might not be the case. Kendra explains that "Jamal is going through an awakening."
Well into the proceedings, Lieutenant John Stokes (Michael Genet) enters. Dressed in a suit (costumes by Herin Kaputkin), Stokes tries to be formal, official, and by the book. A few times, he just says his name to introduce himself. At first, he has nothing pertinent to add but he becomes exasperated as both Scott and Kendra badger him. Time is advancing and audience members are able to note this through a visible clock which is an important part of Brian Prather's set. Jamal was last seen at 8 p.m. and it is now well past 5 a.m. the next day.
Brabson, shaping Kendra's character, is physically expressive as she is constantly coping with overbearing eventualities. The audience can feel her dread. Her nerves further fray as she waits for a report. The actress provides an authoritative, deep and enduring performance. J. Anthony Crane, too, is most effective as Scott Connor, a complicated person who is not without feeling or empathy. Initially, he holds himself together, but by increments, his feigned security begins to crack.
John Ford-Dunker, as Officer Larkin, holds fast to his character: a man who is one-dimensional, but even he is pushed to an explosive state. Michael Genet's Lieutenant Stokes is volatile. His fuse is short and he is not able to remain patient under duress.
This play, either through dialogue or implication, is unrelenting. Christopher Demos-Brown, writing with insight and specificity, addresses agonizing issues. The playwright sculpts characters who are unflinching. Rob Ruggiero interprets with accuracy. His four actors demonstrate the necessary range to embody individuals who find themselves struggling with the given predicament as they hope for resolution. The situation throughout is confrontational and never comfortable.
American Son runs through November 23, 2019, at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford CT. For tickets and information, call 860-527-7838 or visit twhartford.org.