By Philip Dorian
A review of “Trouble in Mind,” that opened last week at Two River Theater could begin by heaping praise on Two River’s artistic director John Dias for resurrecting the play by 20th-century African-American playwright Alice Childress. Noting that the play employs the popular backstage play-within-a-play brilliantly is another. Both of those elements, combined with superior acting and directing, contribute to the quality – and the importance – of “Trouble in Mind.”
The authentic setting is Two River’s own stage, bare to the walls except for a table and a few chairs, a prop doorframe and the requisite ghost light. Set in the mid-1950s, a predominantly black cast is set to begin rehearsals for the Broadway premiere of “Chaos in Belleville,” which its white director condescendingly labels an “anti-lynching play.”
In “Trouble in Mind,” Childress, herself a former actress, captures the protocol of ‘50s-era actors, both black and white, as well as the servile attitudes of the indentured blacks and their somewhat beneficent white overlords that are the “Chaos in Belleville” characters. The two plays emerge both as mirror images and polar opposites.
The “Trouble” actors have roles in “Chaos,” which is set on a southern plantation and in which McKinley Belcher III plays the target of a lynch mob. It is suggested that he be locked in the local jail for his own protection, a move his “Chaos” mother encourages.
Brenda Pressley plays the actress who, in turn, plays that mother. Alternately impassioned and quietly seething, the ‘50s actress cannot reconcile her own assertive values with the “Chaos” mother’s acquiescence. Pressley commands the stage in a remarkable performance that illuminates both past and present.
As the actress who plays a plantation maid, Amirah Vann takes slave-like subservience to an extreme level, encouraging laughter born of likely embarrassment. Point well made.
Brian Russell and Hayley Treider play actors who in turn play the plantation owner and his daughter. Russell amuses with his efforts to “get down” with the African-Americans in the cast, and Treider captures first-time actress Judy’s innocence as well as the plantation-daughter’s relative liberalism. (There’s a hint of backstage romance between her character and Belcher’s. The playwright trod gently here, even in 1950, but Treider and Belcher play it perfectly.)
Tony Award-winner Roger Robinson, with whom I worked in stock years ago, plays the elder statesman among the acting company. Trusted with much of the comedy, he does not miss a beat, but his triumph is the relating of an actual lynching that his character witnessed at age 6. The opening night audience’s silence was deafening.
As the director within the play, Steven Skybell does not entirely avoid the temptation to overact the nominal villain who humiliates his stage manager (Jonathan David Martin, properly mild), disses the venerable stage doorman (superb character-actor Robert Hogan), and demeans his cast. He’s an over-the-top taskmaster, but Skybell’s nuanced delivery of the climactic “image vs. reality” speech goes a long way toward redeeming both character and actor.
Jade King Carroll does double duty as the actual director of “Trouble in Mind” and, of course, of the “Chaos in Belleville” scenes. As such, she is charged with elucidating the racial pressures of both depicted eras as well as allowing considerable humor to leaven the proceedings. Ms. Carroll succeeds admirably at both.
Seeing “Trouble in Mind” and Lorraine Hansberry’s “Raisin in the Sun,” also about racial issues, in a two-week span reinforces a belief in theater as an educational as well as entertainment medium. Neither play solves anything, but they sure set you to thinking.
“Trouble in Mind,” at Two River Theater, 21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank, through April 27. Performances: 1 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $20 at 732-345-1400 or online at www.tworivertheater.org.