Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Under This Roof, by Barbara Kingsley, is being given its world premiere production by Full Circle Theater in the Guthrie's Dowling Studio. Raymond's roof turns out to be above the modest home in Cleveland's Central neighborhood, where African-American Raymond and Mamie settled decades back. Raymond supported them as a skilled roofing contractor, while Mamie cleaned white women's houses. It is 1948 and Raymond lies in pain on the living room sofa, suffering multiple injuries after a fall off a roof while on a job. With no workers' compensation, no health insurance, the Warrens are stretched to breaking to make ends meet. Somehow, Mamie must keep her job, even with the need to care for Raymond.
The answer comes in the form of a girl recommended by Mamie's friend, a girl who is reliable, with experience caring for people who are laid up. Mamie holds off leaving for work until Bessie Washington arrives. When she does, Mrs. Washington is a great surprise to Mamie: a white woman, come to take care of a black man in his home in his sketchy neighborhood. Unheard of! Mamie is suspicious, but needs to get to work. Bessie sets out to care for Raymond but he is an ornery patient, barking demands, refusing his medications, and resisting her efforts to soothe his pain. She certainly is a competent caregiver, and blessed with a great deal of patience, but it is clear that she has a secret that keeps both Raymond and Mamie from trusting her. Over the two acts, the truth finally emerges, bearing witness to the damage done when prejudice and fear cause people to conceal their true selves.
Kingsley is well known as an actor in the Twin Cities, including her Ivey Award winning turn as Alice B. Toklas in the two-hander Gertrude Stein and a Companion, but also has a long list of writing credits to her name. Under This Roof went through development at Penguin Rep in Stony Point, New York, and a workshop produced by Jungle Theater in Minneapolis before this, the play's first full production. The play has vibrant dialogue that establishes a sense of each character's inner self and is performed by a wonderful, persuasive cast, and given a well-staged production.
Setting the play in 1948 provides a milieu in which Bessie feels compelled to withhold key facts about herself and the predicament she is in. There are things people just didn't talk openly about back then, disabilities being among them. Even so, her deceptions ring untrue, or at least careless. She appears to have no idea why Mamie is shocked to see her, a white woman, at their front door, but later admits that she deceived them into expecting a black woman. She allows herself to be caught in lies when the truth is actually on her side. We hear her side of phone calls that don't sound like crisis, yet she hides them from Raymond. She pointedly tells Raymond she is not a nurse, but refrains from letting him know how she attained the training she clearly has had. A gun appears on and off, perhaps a ploy to ratchet up the tension, but is clumsily put to use as a plot device. The plotting along the way feels unfinished, as if still a work in progress.
What works best in Under This Roof are the warm exchanges between Mr. and Mrs. Warren, a husband despairing by no longer being able to bring home the family bacon, and a wife struggling to care for her wounded partner, both his body and his pride, knowing that the meager earnings she can bring home will not carry them through. They have saved up some money for Raymond to launch a business, and now have to face the reality that their dream may never bear fruit. These scenes are well written, with Raymond and Mamie exchanging equal portions of sass and tenderness, and they are touchingly played by Brian A. Grandison and Yolande Bruce.
The scenes in which Bessie Washington labors to break through Raymond's defenses, to coax him into eating the food she cooks, her skilled assistance helping his broken body to shift positions, her sly maneuvers to overcome his child-like resistance to taking his medicationsthese too are finely crafted, paced to convey the sense of frustration each of them feel, and beautifully portrayed by Grandison and Laura Esping as Bessie. Raymond's efforts to conceal his need for his urinal and Bessie's no-nonsense way of whisking the business away, is a great example of the duel between their two strong wills.
In these and other scenes, director James A. Williams draws beautiful work from his cast. In addition to the examples above, Yolande Bruce's portrayal of Mamie's anger at Bessie, which is an expression of her anger at all the hard knocks that have befallen her, Esping's emotionally wrought confession as to how she came to be in her present circumstance, and Grandison's wrenching portrait of a man not knowing if he can afford the remedies for his constant pain, wanting to latch onto a simple pleasures like a smoke, when he can, all exemplify these actors' superb work. A fourth cast member, Nathan R. Stenberg, is similarly compelling in a brief but pivotal appearance.
The Warrens' home is well realized in Michael Burden's stage design, a worn-looking home that retains its sense of familial comfort, and Amber Brown's costume designs capture the post-war era and the difference in the characters' lived experience to a T. Paul Bigot provides a great wig to give Laura Esping's Bessie a prim yet smart 1948 look. Katherine Horowitz's sound design is very effective, with period radio music and gab, and off-stage running water, flushing, and doors opening and shutting.
Under This Roof takes too long telling its story, revealing its secrets, and making its point, that these people from different backgrounds with different sets of issues can find common ground, ifand only ifthey can be real to one another. It's a point well worth making, and if the narrative is flawed, the strong performances and well-wrought production provide some pleasure in reaching it.
Under This Roof, through May 20, 2018, at the Guthrie Theater's Dowling Studio 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. All tickets are $9.00. For tickets call 612-377-2224, or go to www.guthrietheater.org. For information about Full Circle Theater Company go to www.fullcircletheatermn.org.
Playwright: Barbara Kingsley; Director: James. A. Williams; Assistant Director: Roxanne Battle; Scenery and Property Design: Michael Burden; Costume Design: Amber Brown; Lighting Design: Thomas Barrett; Sound Design: Katherine Horowitz; Wig Design: Paul Bigot; Dramaturg: Stephanie Lein Walseth; Disability Consultant: MacGregor Arney; Stage Manager: Kenji Shoemaker
Cast: Yolande Bruce (Mamie Warren), Laura Esping (Bessie Washington), Brian A. Grandison (Raymond Warren), Nathan R. Stenberg (Mason Mueller).