The Destruction of Love: The Aurora Theatre’s Anatol

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Gabrielle (Delia MacDougall) and Anatol (Mike Ryan) share a memory on Christmas Eve.  (Photo: David Allen)

Arthur Schnitzler, the unjustly neglected chronicler of Viennese fin de siècle sexual mores, receives some well-deserved attention thanks to a new production of his play Anatol by the great Aurora Theatre Company. Schnitzler was friendly with Freud in the latter part of his life (both were Jewish and doctors), and they shared a fascination with the human psyche and the conflict between sexual behavior and conventional morality.

Schnitzler is most famous for La Ronde, (originally published in German in 1903 as Reigen, but more commonly called by its French name due to Max Ophuls’ famous movie adaptation), a theatrical rondel in 10 scenes portraying sex as the force that transcends class barriers and explodes hidebound conceptions of virtue. It was famously condemned and couldn’t be performed in many countries for years. Schnitzler is now probably more famous in the English-speaking world as the author of Dream Story (Traumnovelle in German), the novella that Stanley Kubrick adapted for his last film, Eyes Wide Shut. (Don’t judge Schnitzler by the moribund, enervating tableaux not-so-vivants that Kubrick brought to the screen.)

Anatol was initially published piecemeal in short scenes, but released in its full, seven-scene length in 1892. In a world-premiere translation by Schnitzler scholar Margret Schaefer, the Aurora presents six of those scenes in a slightly different order. (A program note mentions that Schnitzler wrote nine Anatol scenes, but I was not able to find any confirmation of this—the English translations I was able to glance at all have seven scenes.) The omission of “Agony,” the usual penultimate scene, emphasizes the comic in this mounting, but rue and regret still echo throughout the evening.

The title character is clearly modeled on Schnitzler himself: Anatol professes to believe in love, but flits from one tryst to another, always disappointed, never fully trusting the women he’s sleeping with, using that mistrust to disguise his own self-loathing. However, Anatol the play is a comedy of manners and several of the scenes are farcical, so the terrific Aurora cast and the wonderful direction by Aurora co-founder and artistic director emerita Barbara Oliver create a hilarious and exceedingly entertaining evening of theater, without slighting the melancholy inherent in Anatol’s exploits. (During this production, I was struck by the fact that Anatol is clearly a precursor to TV’s Frasier, a show which, at its best, juggled the same strains of farce, high comedy, romance, and melancholy.)

Anatol is a literary descendant of Don Juan, the seducer who aims to prove all women unworthy through the very act of seduction. He appears in all six of the vignettes and is almost never offstage. His friend Max is his foil, his confidant, his best friend, and also the person most capable of seeing through his self-justifications and fabrications. Max appears in four of the six scenes, and each scene features a different woman: a new conquest, two figures from the past, a lover no longer beloved, a fiancée, and a mistake. Oliver uses one actress to portray all of these roles, a strategy I was leery of. You need to see a parade of different women, of different types, to understand the energy and desperation of Anatol’s quixotic search for love. Could one actress convey these disparate types of women?

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Ilona (Delia MacDougall) avenges herself on Anatol (Mike Ryan) while Max (Tim Kniffin) observes. (Photo: David Allen)

Well, the right actress can, and that actress is Delia MacDougall. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen MacDougall in a play, and I had half-forgotten how ferociously talented she is. Here, each of her six women is absolutely distinct. She physicalizes and vocalizes each one completely, transforming herself with each new incarnation. As a willing hypnosis subject, whom Anatol hopes to bewitch into telling him the truth of her feelings for him, she’s breezy and delightful, possessing the self-confidence of youth. As Bianca the circus performer, she brandishes a Russian accent, purring with mock dismay when Max upbraids her for not recognizing Anatol. Her bearing is still and proud as the married woman Anatol runs into while shopping on Christmas Eve. Having had an affair with Anatol in the past (though we don’t know how far it went), she listens to Anatol describe his current flame while gently needling him. “I know your tastes,” she says, spitting off the end of “tastes.” And in a tender moment, she and Anatol almost kiss, but she breaks it off, knowing that such pleasures are in the past for her. There’s a gorgeous moment when she, in a generous final gesture, hands over to Anatol the bright orange hothouse tulips she’s been carrying around with her packages, a gift for his new paramour.

The tulips have a warm glow, a symbol of the passion she’s bequeathing to this new woman. (Krista Smith’s lighting and the properties design, credited to both Mia Baxter and Seren Helday are exquisite throughout.) This scene is Oliver’s best bit of direction: The blocking perfectly portrays an aimless winter’s stroll despite the tiny space of the Aurora stage, and the subtle shifts of mood are almost heartbreaking.

MacDougall’s Annie, a dancer with the Opera who’s decided to break up over supper with Anatol, carries a head that’s not quite attached to her body. It bobbles around merrily as she gobbles down oysters, dismissing Anatol unconcernedly, prattling in her sloshy diction. This amazing actress imbues Emilie, a fiancée who’s willing to put up with Anatol’s incessant tests of her love, but only to a certain point, with both a swooning romance and a shocking acquisitiveness. And as the furious Ilona, who’s had the misfortune to spend the night with Anatol at a most inopportune time, MacDougall is hilarious, wreaking havoc on his well-appointed apartment.

When you read the play, you may think of Anatol as slim and elegant, sort of like Algernon or Jack in The Importance of Being Earnest. Actor Mike Ryan is stout, possesses thinning hair, and sports a walrus-y mustache. Yet he possesses impeccable diction and uses his body expressively. When he hears something shocking from Max, his body turns from the hips, his neck held stiff, and he leans slightly backwards, the very definition of “reeling.” He shifts from outrage to cunning to earnestness within the confines of a single line. Ryan uses emphasis in surprising ways, such as accenting the second syllable of the name “Cora,” to underscore comically the infatuation that he mistakes for love. He’s a force of both nature and intellect, and you can see why he fascinates these women. He’s amazing at the difficult job of showing us Anatol’s self-deception, but letting us know that on a deeper level, Anatol is aware of his own games. He can con anyone, even himself, and it’s his belief in these cons that makes him so intriguing.

As Max, Tim Kniffin is slim and elegant, with an aquiline nose and a well-cut head of gray hair, immaculately put together. He’s slightly older than Anatol, which puts him at a slight remove from the younger man’s shenanigans. He’s clearheaded in his judgments, amused by his friend’s antics, but he also clearly knows whose side he’s on, even avenging Anatol when one old flame confesses that Anatol meant nowhere near as much to her as she to him. As the sly observer, Kniffin’s movements are and stiller, less animated than Ryan’s, and it’s perfect for the character.  Wiley Naman Stasser portrays Franz, Anatol’s manservant, and a waiter at the Sacher Hotel (whose famous torte makes an appearance), with a proud, upright bearing, weathering Anatol’s momentary tantrums and conspiring in his amorous plots with aplomb.

Schaeffer’s translation seems natural and unforced, modern, yet period-appropriate.  Only one phrase stuck out for me, when Max describes one of the women as “…a revenging fury who wants to avenge herself on all of us.” The repetition of the “-venge” root is jarring. (Frank Marcus translates the line as “…a figure from classical tragedy. One who tried to avenge her whole sex,” which seems more successful to me.)

Anna Oliver’s costumes are gorgeous and ingenious, especially in MacDougall’s case. A blood red skirt becomes a winter coat, an evening gown, and a chorus girl’s after-theater ensemble. The set, by John Iacovelli, features a rotating portal that enables rapid scene changes, shifting from Anatol’s blue drawing room with a bay window, to Max’s red den, to an exterior shop window, or a hotel’s private dining room. (I am curious about the decision to make Anatol’s room blue and Max’s red. It seems that reversing that scheme would better suit their characters.)

The show is perfectly calibrated by director Oliver, shifting seamlessly from farce to gentle sorrow, from humorous artifice to art, getting at the evanescence, the elusiveness, of love. The Aurora’s production of Anatol tells us that love can evaporate under the heat of observation and analysis, but knows that we can’t help looking anyway.

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Annie (MacDougall) lets neither decorum nor the end of an affair get in the way of her dinner. (Photo: David Allen)

Anatol plays from now until May 13 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. For more information, call 510-843-4822 or visit http://www.auroratheatre.org.

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The Caged Bird Sings: Aurora Theatre’s “The Eccentricities of a Nightingale”

Alma (Beth Wilmurt) encounters John (Thomas Gorrebeeck) at a Fourth of July celebration. (Photo: David Allen)

The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, Tennessee William’s 1961 reworking of his earlier Summer and Smoke, is one of his masterpieces, residing just beneath A Streetcar Named Desire and The Night of the Iguana in achievement.  It is also, unfortunately, one of his lesser-known and less-produced plays.  The schematic and much inferior Summer and Smoke is mounted far more often, and productions of The Glass Menagerie, a play that hints at greatness but falls well short, seem to pop up every other month, as inevitable and tenacious as crabgrass.  (Next in line to break the horn off that damn unicorn: Marin Theater Company, Fall 2011.)

My first experience with Eccentricities, reading it in college, left me unimpressed.  I read it immediately after Summer and Smoke, and the earlier play’s heavy-handedness bled into my experience of the later.  It wasn’t until many years later, when I saw the terrific television production with Blythe Danner and Frank Langella that I realized its greatness.

I thus eagerly awaited the Aurora Theatre’s production, directed by the skilled and talented Tom Ross.  And when I heard that the wonderful Beth Wilmurt would play Alma Winemiller, the “Nightingale of the Delta,” my hopes were raised almost impossibly high.  (This blog is in real danger of becoming a Wilmurt fan site.)  So it’s with real enthusiasm I can report that the Aurora’s production is wonderful: delicate, poetic, immensely moving, and gorgeously acted and directed.

The character of Alma Winemiller is the heart and soul of the play.  (“Alma means soul in Spanish,” she tells a stranger.)  A singing teacher in the small provincial town of Glorious Hill, Mississippi, Alma possesses such depths of feeling and emotion that she can’t help but manifest them physically: she talks too much, she talks too loud, her hands flutter about, she’s awkward and needy. She’s desperate for connection, for beauty, and for meaning.  In love with the handsome boy next door, a recent medical school graduate from Johns Hopkins, she does her best to hide her desire, but she fools no one, especially the boy’s mother, whose own sense of suffocation in this small town causes her to live too much through her son.

The play is set just before World War I, and one of the shocking things is the utter lack of nostalgia in Williams’ vision.  We’re not used to seeing people in turn-of-the-century finery dealing with the messiness and reality of sex.  (In most novels of the period, people get married and babies magically come.)  Alma’s tragedy is also in some sad, small, scandalous way her triumph as well.  In giving up her dreams of love, she, the daughter of a pious minister and a mentally disturbed mother, doesn’t also give up on sex.  She gets her moments of connection where she can. Trapped in her claustrophobic community, with its populace mostly concerned with convention, she makes her way as best she can and Williams’ not only refuses to condemn her for it, he loves her for her bravery.

Alma (Beth Wilmurt) seeks treatment for her palpitations from John (Thomas Gorrebeeck). (Photo: David Allen)

Wilmurt is spectacular.  (Is she the best actress around?  It sure seems that way to me.)  At the play’s opening, she took me aback somewhat. Alma sings at a Fourth of July function, and Wilmurt has a gorgeous voice, but this time there was a strain I haven’t heard before.  It wasn’t until a later scene, when she performs at home for that boy next door, Dr. John Buchanan (Thomas Gorrebeeck) (“Sacred or profane?” she asks, referring to the type of song he’d like to hear.  “Profane,” he answers), and her voice is relaxed and clear, that I realized just how carefully Wilmurt had calibrated that opening performance, how the strain was the character’s, not the actor’s.

What makes her performance so amazing is the restraint with which Wilmurt portrays Alma’s awkwardness, self-consciousness and desperation.  She emphasizes Alma’s courage, her ability to go on day after day, when only unhappiness stretches before her.  Wilmurt’s Alma is rarely still, she’s busy planning, arranging, talking, hoping to make things come off well.  But Wilmurt is so inside the skin of this character, that she gives every gesture, every motion of Alma’s meaning and purpose.  When her hands flutter, they don’t flop around without direction—they move according to the myriad different, sometimes competing impulses within Alma. Wilmurt projects Alma’s rapid thoughts and emotional changes physically, through movement.  Her scattered motions aren’t awkward to the audience, though we understand how they are to the other characters; Wilmurt uses her body to make Alma’s soul tangible to us.

Of the many heartbreaking yet lovely scenes is a gathering of fellow arts lovers to which she invites John.  Before he comes, she tries to tamp down the groups’ peculiarities, and you can tell she’s seeing the group through John’s eyes.  But rather than cancelling the whole thing then and there, she tries to make it as presentable as possible, delaying any discussion of the group’s manifesto in front of John, as well as avoiding a reading of one member’s epic-length verse play.  When the arts group’s members get too rambunctious, Alma calms them down by reading William Blake’s “Love’s Secret.”  Wilmurt recites it with a beautiful simplicity, and you can see why Alma interests John.

Earlier, Reverend Winemiller, Alma’s minister father, (the unbelievably good Charles Dean), in trying to help his unhappy daughter, tells her how the townspeople mock her and imitate her mannerisms, and it’s awful, awful, awful.  Wilmurt has Alma’s very skin seem to beg him to stop.  Pacing about, wringing her hands, Alma suffers physical pain facing the things about herself that she hates more deeply than any townsperson ever could.  Within herself, Alma already knows how her neighbors feel about her, and forcing her to acknowledge openly their behind-her-back mockery seems intolerably cruel, yet Dean makes it clear that Winemiller doesn’t know how else to help his daughter.  Wilmurt makes it clear that Alma can do nothing with this knowledge except suffer.

The Reverend Winemiller (Charles Dean) shares hard truths with his daughter. (Photo: David Allen)

To the smaller, and in some ways more difficult role of Mrs. Buchanan, John’s mother, Marcia Pizzo brings an astonishing depth and skill.  Mrs. Buchanan is a harridan, so fearful that John may fall into Alma’s grasp that she goes to often ludicrous lengths to keep her son away from Alma. But as Pizzo acts the role, Mrs. Buchanan recognizes too much of Alma in herself: Despite her seeming success (the town beauty, married to the town doctor, respected by all), she’s a woman as unhappy in her own way as Alma is.  She knows how dangerously close she might have come to Alma’s mannered eccentricities.  She’s achieved everything she was taught to want, and it’s not enough.  Her hopes and desires now reside in her son and she clutches him protectively; she believes he won’t be happy or successful if he stays in Glorious Hill, because she did and she isn’t.  He has to leave to achieve the dreams she has for him, and she knows he never will if he attaches himself to Alma.  Pizzo makes the woman more than a harridan: she makes her human.

As John, Gorrebeeck gives an extremely intelligent performance.  He lends the role a stillness and a watchfulness, and John becomes a shock-absorber for these two very different women nevertheless tied by common fears. He’s probably the only person who’s ever really listened to Alma, who’s ever really heard her.  He’s also no fool: He seems to tolerate his mother’s ministrations, but his attention to Alma is an act of rebellion towards his mother.  Unlike her, he knows that Alma is no danger to him.  He’s intrigued, but it’s an almost clinical interest, and he knows that he doesn’t love her.  (Alma, no fool herself, knows it too.)  In Center Rep’s mostly dreadful production of Dracula, Gorrebeeck appeared movie-star handsome, but here, he sports a mustache that somehow makes him more stolid and ordinary, good-looking but in a small-town way, and it’s absolutely right for the role.

Tom Ross handles his actors and the script beautifully—he understands its exquisite structures and moods.  The extreme thrust stage of the Aurora does provide an exciting intimacy with the actors and the play, but it presents some challenges Ross is unable to overcome. Wilmurt is in every scene of this play, and because the play’s done essentially in the round, of necessity there are times when Wilmurt has to have her back to some portion of the audience.  And since what you want to see most at any given moment is her face, you sometimes find yourself craning in your seat, hoping to get a better view of her features.

The design (lighting by Jim Cave; set by Liliana Duque Piñeiro) while on the whole lovely, does have an occasional problem: A gas lamp snaps on like an electric lamp, and there are difficulties suggesting fireplaces with the lighting in the first act scenes.  The fireplace screens are directly in front of the audience and the lighting meant to suggest flames doesn’t quite come across. In the penultimate scene, however, the fire flames, dies, and comes back to life suggestively and beautifully.

In the play’s heartbreaking final sequence, Alma asks a travelling salesman if he speaks Spanish.  “Un poquito,” he replies.  “Sometimes,” she responds, “un poquito is enough.”  For Alma, it has to be enough: It’s all she has, all she’s left with.  With this beautiful, tender and moving production, we’re left with much more than enough, a glimpse into the beauty that illuminates a small, seemingly wretched and insignificant life. And that’s everything.

Mrs. Buchanan (Marcia Pizzo) "rescues" her son from Alma. (Photo: David Allen)

The Eccentricities of a Nightingale plays through May 8, 2011, at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA, 94704.  For tickets and other information, call 510-843-4822 or go to http://www.auroratheatre.org.

Gold and Fool’s Gold: Aurora Theatre’s “Palomino”

David Cale as Kieran McGrath in Palomino

David Cale portrays Kieran McGrath in Aurora Theatre's "Palomino." (Photo: David Allen)

David Cales’ one-man show, Palomino, which just opened at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre, is certainly engaging, and it contains moments of real insight and empathy.  Also in its favor is that it attempts to be an actual play: Palomino isn’t documentary theater (a genre I’ve come to dread, despite having seen a worthwhile example once) or an autobiographical confessional.  The clearly talented Cale, writer, director, and sole cast member, portrays five characters (the official count is seven, but two are so peripheral as to not really count), two male and three female.  Each is well-wrought, humorous, and occasionally moving.  One in particular, the Australian ex-pat society matron and lonely widow Vallie, breathes with a life of her own.  The problem is that the play doesn’t add up:  Cale’s ending seems tacked on and rather desperate. A new character, Edward, a British publisher, suddenly emerges to tell us the two main characters’ entirely unsatisfying denouements. It’s Edward who then gets the dramatic resolution in Palomino, and he doesn’t deserve it.

Cale’s play begins with Kieran McGrath, a young, good-looking Irishman adrift in New York, who’s a Central Park carriage driver, ferrying tourists around behind his striking Palomino horse.  An older woman takes a ride one day and makes him an irresistible offer: She’ll pay him thousands of dollars to escort and sleep with rich older women.  “You’ll be my pimp?” he asks.  She answers in the affirmative.  Since Kieran also aspires to be a writer, he agrees, figuring he’ll get some great material out of it.  (The setup is unfortunately reminiscent of a horrible 1987 movie, The Women’s Club, with Michael Paré as the gigolo cum scriptor.)  His lucrative trysts serve him well, and he has a caring, intimate way with clients that guarantees his popularity.  But it’s Vallie who proves fondest of him, discovering depths of sensual pleasure and passion she didn’t know she possessed, once she allows herself to overcome her initial mortification.  It’s Vallie, too, who causes the most complicated responses in Kieran, when she proves unafraid to ask for more than he’s willing to give.

Vallie lives in splendor on the fortune left to her by her art collecting, jazz club-owning husband, who died five years previous.  She volunteers and fund-raises for various charities to fill the time, and she’s in a holding pattern, unable to risk moving forward with her life.  Kieran, though, awakens her dormant desire, and she comes to care for him, even while knowing that there’s something adolescent and unreal in this relationship, that it can’t last.  Kieran agrees to accompany her on a final trip together to Malta, and it’s from there that he leaves her, to make a new life for himself in England.  He can’t handle the realness of Vallie, the fact that there might be something more in their relationship than sex, and he has to flee.  It’s in Malta as well that Vallie begins to come to terms with the lingering grief of her husband’s death, and it’s Cale’s best moment as both an actor and a writer.

All of Palomino’s characters are essentially rootless: Irish, English, Australian, drifting between continents.  Cale uses extensive bird imagery (Kieran describes himself as a bird forever floating, hovering, unable to land), and a primary object in the play is a drawing of a white bird that Kieran talks Vallie into giving to him.  The artwork ends up coming home to Vallie in an unexpected way.

Gifted as Cale is, he doesn’t always do enough to embody the physical differences among his characters.  When performing a monologue, he uses his body well and convincingly, but he essentially physically differentiates only between his male and female characters.  The women tend to move alike, as do the men.  And his Commonwealth accents can start to sound the same, especially when he’s performing a dialog between two characters.  (You can lose track of who’s saying what if you don’t pay close attention.)  There are two other female roles Cale portrays, Ruby: another client, whose primary function is to remind us that Kieran is indeed a gigolo as his relationship with Vallie deepens, and Trish, a young Englishwoman Kieran has a tryst with while accompanying Vallie on a trip to California.  Both are compelling in and of themselves, but Vallie and Kieran are the center of Palomino, and these two stories seem like side trips.

As a writer, Cale has a talent for telling details (when Vallie first has sex with Kieran, it’s on the floor of her living room, and she’s surprised to discover a long-lost coffee cup under one of the sofas), and he understands the complications inherent in all human interactions: motives are never either wholly pure or wholly meretricious, perhaps the most essential thing for a chronicler of human beings to understand.

In many ways, what Cale is striving for here is similar to what Lily Tomlin and playwright Jane Wagner achieve in Tomlin’s brilliant one-woman show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. Both shows feature the surprising connections among a group of fully realized characters, but Wagner’s script is superbly plotted with a rock-solid structure.  Cale’s story gets diverted onto wandering paths away from its center.  Trish’s story, though interesting and even moving, is a detour to a dead end.   But it’s Edward’s appearance and the use Cale puts him to, that’s the real failure of the play.

Years after Malta, Kieran tries to sell his memoirs to Edward, who happens to have a connection to Vallie, and he recognizes that Kieran’s manuscript is her story as well.  Thus it’s Edward, a character we barely know, who tells us how both Kieran and Vallie have fared.  Worse yet, it’s Edward’s own story that concludes the play, despite his not having earned our interest the way Vallie and Kieran have.  But Cale’s greatest artistic sin is to have an acquaintance of Edward’s (and Kieran’s, as it turns out) sum Kieran’s character up in a single epithet — “asshole” — in literally the penultimate sentence of the play.  We, and Cale, would not have spent so much time with Kieran if he were merely an asshole.  It’s an insult to Kieran, to the audience, and to Cale’s own work.

Unlike Kieran’s golden horse, Palomino, despite some striking moments and Cale’s obvious talent, doesn’t take you where you want to go.

Palomino plays from now until December 5 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley, CA.  For more information, call 510-843-4822 or visit http://www.auroratheatre.org.

Aurora Theatre Company’s Unsettling and Unsettled “Trouble in Mind”

Margo Hall as Wiletta Mayer in the Aurora Theatre's "Trouble in Mind"

Berkeley’s wonderful Aurora Theatre possesses an intimate thrust stage, employs local area actors, and often makes tremendous theater, despite a few stinkers every now and then. (Last year’s season-closer, Stephen Karam’s Speech & Debate, counts as one of the stinkers.)

They’ve opened their new season with a largely forgotten work, Alice Childress’ 1955 Trouble in Mind. Childress was an African-American activist, author and playwright, perhaps best known today for her 1973 young-adult novel A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich. (She is reputed to be the first woman playwright to win an Obie award for Trouble in Mind in 1956, the first year of the honors, but she isn’t listed on the Village Voice’s official Obie website.) She was a member of the American Negro Theatre, working in many capacities for the organization, even acting on Broadway in their production of Anna Lucasta. (The Aurora’s program notes state that she garnered a Tony nomination for this, but, again, she’s not listed on the official Tony website.)

The murky details of her early theatre career underscore that she isn’t as remembered as she perhaps ought to be. Trouble in Mind, a scintillating, but ultimately, I think, unsuccessful play, indicates that a real injustice has been done in allowing her theatrical writing to fall to neglect.

The show opens with the first rehearsal of a mid-1950s Off-Broadway play about a lynching in a Southern town. Actress Wiletta Mayer (the redoubtable Margo Hall) is the first to arrive, exchanging pleasantries with the rather dim Irish doorman, Henry (Earll Kingston). She’s soon joined by John Nevins (Jon Joseph Gentry), a young black actor hoping for stardom from his role, the lynching victim whose mother is portrayed by Wiletta. She presumes to give him advice about working with white people: laugh at their jokes, don’t question their assumptions. “White folks can’t stand unhappy Negroes,” she says, with a bitter laugh. John largely ignores this, but agrees that the script at hand, the play within the play, isn’t great. However, he’s more interested in the craft and technique of acting, of making his role live. Millie Davis (Elizabeth Carter) and Sheldon Forrester (Rhonnie Washington) enter next. Sheldon is a journeyman actor cast as the father, and Millie knows that she’s playing another shuffling Jemima in the role of family friend, but dreams of real elegance. (“I’ll be damned if I wear another bandanna,” she snaps.) The white actors are Judy Sears (Melissa Quine), a naïve Yale product whose Bridgeport parents are terrified of her working in the big city, and Bill O’Wray, a genial man who’s nevertheless ill at ease around the black actors.

This is all presided over by the director, Al Manners (Tim Kniffin) and the young stage manager Eddie Fenton (Patrick Russell), both white. Manners has worked with Wiletta before and he’s affectionate towards her, but also paternalistic and condescending. (The irony of his name is a little heavy-handed.) Often coming across as an artistic blowhard, Manners is desperate for the play to be a success, and he pushes the actors to “justify” and “motivate” their characters’ actions. Millie and Sheldon do their best to convince Al they’re being authentic, John attacks and analyzes his role trying to convince himself he’s being authentic, but Wiletta is adrift. She gets stiffer and more awkward in the part as the rehearsals progress. As Al snipes at her more and more, she’s pushed to the breaking point.

Childress has fantastic powers of observation, coupled with a knowing sense of humor, and it’s these that make the play work to the extent that it does. For a good portion of the play she expertly handles the crosscurrents of race, sex, class, and theatrical heirarchy, and how each complicates the others. Wiletta jokes that Millie is always playing roles with flower names (Magnolia, Lily), while she gets all the roles with jewel names (Pearl, Opal). Then they find that this time out Millie will be Petunia, and Wiletta, Ruby. When John gets too friendly with Judy, Millie warns him, “You’re the thing her parents are terrified of.” Childress deftly exposes the myriad hypocrisies and deceptions race engenders in both the theatrical and real worlds. (For Childress, the theatrical world is an intensification of the real world.)

Trouble in Mind is lively, funny, and smart, but ultimately, it’s a thesis play, and therein lies its failure. Wiletta finally rebels and points out the absurdity of the show they’re rehearsing—that it’s not an anti-lynching work, since it hinges on the innocence of the lynching victim, the subtext being that if he were actually guilty, lynching would be fine. She denigrates the preposterousness of the actions assigned to her: She’s supposed to be ironing while pleading with the farm owner to send her son to jail so he’ll be safe.  A black mother in the South, she argues, would know that jailing would just ensure the mob knows right where to get at the object of their fury, and she certainly wouldn’t be ironing at such a time. But during these monologues, she becomes hyper-eloquent, speaking dense chunks of text. She’s no longer speaking in Wiletta’s voice, she’s now the playwright expounding on injustice. When Manners loses his temper in response, he becomes Childress’ straw man, exhibiting a shocking degree of racial hatred that’s only slightly less simplistic than the moment in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing when the Danny Aiello character spits out the N-word. What was a largely successful characterization falls apart.

Still, the Aurora’s production is a worthy evening of theater. I was dismissive of director Robin Stanton’s talents after seeing her work on Speech & Debate. (Her manner of eliciting energy from her young cast was to have them yell at each other.) Here, she’s working with an infinitely better script, and her crew of actors does impressive work, expertly mining the many layers of humor, anger, bitterness, resignation, self-deception, and resentment. There’s also a great sense of how important theater is to each of these people.

Stanton does misstep in one instance. When Sheldon relates the details of an actual lynching he witnessed as a boy, she dims the lights and has Washington push the horror of it—we’re almost listening to a ghost story told ‘round the campfire. A more matter-of-fact tone would allow the audience to experience the horror better, rather than manufacturing it for them. Stanton also places O’Wray leaning against the back wall, looking away from Sheldon, as if the story bored him. No matter what O’Wray’s discomfort with blacks might be, he’d pay attention to this.

Hall is largely astonishing. When Wiletta struggles in her role, Hall has her flash a look of suppressed rage at Manners as he unhelpfully barks instructions as her. When she proclaims to Henry, “I want to be an actress,” there’s both a fierceness and a desperation. Angrily burlesquing her part at one point, she waddles across the stage in a wide-legged, down-low shuffle. That the final scenes don’t especially work is the playwright’s fault, but Hall is amazingly expert with the subtleties of the shifts elsewhere. She makes palpable Wiletta’s frustration and anger as she demands to be taken seriously as an actress and as a human being.

Kniffin, too, is fine in his difficult role. Excepting the final scene, his Manners is sympathetic even when he’s ridiculous, a man who doesn’t know the extent of his own flaws.

Design-wise, Eric Sinkonnen’s set is just about perfect, a bare theatre with exposed rigging and inadequate radiators on the wall, the actors sitting around a rough table in mismatched chairs. The costumes, by Callie Floor, also successfully evince the period and support the individual characterizations.

Despite its unsuccessful denouement, Trouble in Mind is a fascinating work, a convincing look at the lot of a black actor in the mid-50s. Childress exhibits an incredible eye for detail, a great ear for dialog, and a ferocious intellect. You leave this production with a hunger to look at her other work and a deep admiration for the cast and crew.

Trouble in Mind plays from now until September 26 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, 94704.  For more information, call 510-843-4822 or visit auroratheatre.org.