Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.


Also see Susan's reviews of The Civil War and Chicago

Jessica Frances Dukes and Jenna Sokolowski
Antebellum, Robert O'Hara's play receiving its world premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, is almost ridiculously ambitious, taking on Nazi atrocities, American anti-Semitism, the ghosts of slavery, and questions of gender identity with a talented five-member ensemble cast. If it doesn't quite achieve its grandiose aims, it's still a strong effort, especially as molded by director Chay Yew.

Tony Cisek's set depicts a grand neo-classical sitting room with elegant upholstered furniture and Ionic columns between tall windows. At first it's the living room of the plantation home in Atlanta that naïve Sarah Roca (Jenna Sokolowski) shares with her husband Ariel (Nick Vienna), a Jewish clothing manufacturer with deep southern roots, but—without so much as a change in Colin K. Bills' lighting—the setting turns into the library of a Nazi detention center administered by Oskar von Schleicher (Andrew Price).

Sarah has no idea how her life is going to change when Edna Black Rock (Jessica Frances Dukes), a well-spoken African-American woman, comes to her door and asks for a glass of water. The year is 1939, and self-absorbed Sarah cares only about attending that evening's gala premiere of Gone with the Wind in an absurdly elegant hoop-skirted gown she designed herself. (As realized by Valerie St. Pierre Smith, the dress would stop traffic.) But she likes Edna and hopes to persuade her husband to hire her as their maid.

Meanwhile in Nazi Germany, the audience observes the uncomfortably intimate relationship between the commandant and prisoner Gabriel Gift (Carlton Byrd), an African-American cabaret singer who originally fled prejudice in the U.S. to find success in Europe. The action of the play comes from discovering what these two divergent stories have in common.

The performers all do notable work, but they're best as parts of a whole rather than as individuals. Price displays an intriguing stillness, especially when he sings, while Sokolowski gets the chance to fall apart spectacularly.

Interestingly, last season Woolly Mammoth presented Stunning, a play by David Adjmi that also traces the shifting relationships among a childlike Jewish wife (this one in contemporary Brooklyn), her controlling husband and a mysterious African-American woman. Is there something archetypal about this particular situation?  

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
March 30th —April 26th
By Robert O'Hara
Sarah Roca: Jenna Sokolowski
Edna Black Rock: Jessica Frances Dukes
Oskar von Schleicher: Andrew Price
Gabriel Gift: Carlton Byrd
Ariel Roca: Nick Vienna
Directed by Chay Yew
641 D St. N.W., Washington, DC
Ticket Information: 202-393-3939 or

Photo: Stan Barouh

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