Regional Reviews: St. Louis
But Feeding Beatrice has a lot more going for it, beyond the unexpected shocks. It's intellectually fascinating, even as a fog of madness seeps out of an old stove, and the deep red lights of damnation pulse overhead. It all begins with a grisly body that emerges from a claw-foot bathtub, to take over a once elegant suburban Boston home. But setting all that aside for a moment, deep down, the whole thing really turns on a black husband and wife's disparate views of minority life in a mostly white country. And that's scary enough, when seen in the proper light.
Nathan James plays Lurie, and Lorene Chesley Lurie's wife June. Until things spin out of control, he is able to take an almost scientific, rationalistic view of race relations in America, while she is more vigilant and aware, usually in a philosophical, bemused manner. (Until things spin wildly of control.) In the early light banter, during the 90-minute first act, June chides Lurie for his "respectability politics" and later suggests that he reads the newspaper all the time, just "to make sure the past is still buried."
But what haunted house tale ever really buries its past? Beatrice (dainty yet menacing Allison Winn) appears one day in their hopelessly out of date kitchen. She's perhaps 13 years old and politely insisting on cold milk to drink and homemade jam to wolf down like mad. Clues to her past emerge, cleverly woven into playwright Greenidge's dialog, like breadcrumbs leading back to a very grim fable indeed. It's the present day, but Beatrice can't stop talking about schoolgirl crushes on "American Bandstand"'s Dick Clark and Senator John F. Kennedy. And, of course, she has very outdated ideas on race relations, which lead to some fantastically nightmarish scenes near the end.
"Real ghosts keep re-living the same moment, over and over," Lurie protests. And the great thing about Feeding Beatrice is that it turns out to be a moment in history: at the precise intersection between fantasy and reality for black Americans. Still, ghostliness creeps out of moaning water pipes and shudders through the grumbling radiators. And, as Beatrice, Ms. Winn stands on the opposite corner of their racial crossroads, fixated not just on liberal-minded JFK and the giddiness of early rock 'n roll, but also on ultra-white Shirley Temple and happy, dancing Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, whom Beatrice has become obsessed with in her lonely hours watching TV. Just as we start to understand her past life and anguish, she becomes a vengeful child who uses psychokinesis to slam doors and trap the young couple inside. Near the careening finale, she forces Lurie to recreate one of Shirley's most famous movie scenes, to our shared (but strangely dazzled) anguish.
Ronald Emile is very believable as Lurie's kid brother, who comes in to help fix this unfixable fixer-upper, meanwhile Ms. Chesley, as June, is especially fascinating in her moments of strange doubt, hosting that very unusual little girl from "nearby." And there are unexpectedly heartbreaking moments when June and Lurie succumb to Beatrice's strange charm or fail to keep their distance: caught between showing the best side of black identity and understanding the worst parts of black reality.
I sometimes bring a fancy memory-foam chair pad to shows if I know I'll be sitting on a church pew, or plastic seat, or on hard ground. Here, as part of Lawrence E. Moten III's intensely evocative set, we are required to sit on spindly old dining room chairs for two and a half hours. And it gets really warm down there in the studio theater by the time intermission rolls around (although act two is just a slam-bang 30 minutes in length). There's also a lot of fake smoke, in case you come with a scratchy throatthe stage smoke doesn't really make things any worse, except psychologically, though a show like this is all about psychology. And maybe there could be a few more magic tricks on stage, to further suggest Beatrice's psychokinetic powers.
But, damn, it's good.
Feeding Beatrice runs through November 24, 2019, in the at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' studio theater, on the campus of Webster University, 130 Edgar Rd, Webster Groves MO. For tickets and information, visit repstl.org.
Cast (in speaking order):