American Theater Company

The Goodman Theatre commissioned both Rebecca Gilman’s Spinning Into Butter and Brett Neveu’s Heritage, two plays concerned with American racism. Gilman’s tidy work, which considers the consciences of white middle-class liberals, was produced by the Goodman in 1999, became a hit, and garnered many regional-theater stagings. But Neveu’s nuanced drama, which depicts two not-so-likable African-American men caught up in slavery’s legacy, was never staged by the Goodman.

The fate of these two plays says a lot about the American taste for fake serious theater, the kind that renders a social problem marketable–and inconsequential–by dividing it into entertaining rights and wrongs. Neveu, a well-respected young playwright who wrote Heritage after receiving the Goodman’s Ofner Prize in 2003, does the opposite, whirling thorny issues into such ethical messes it becomes impossible to know where one’s sympathies should lie. He instigates this chaos in part through indirect, seemingly mundane dialogue, forcing actors to think through their lines rather than emote and requiring audiences to consider questions rather than merely consume answers.

As usual it falls to the smaller companies to foster excellent local writers. Two years ago the American Theater Company forged a fruitful relationship with Neveu and his frequent director Edward Sobel when they teamed up on an acclaimed production of American Dead, about an unsolved murder in a small, dying midwestern town. There the performances were too broad and obvious, but Sobel has reined in his actors for ATC’s world premiere of Heritage, conveying almost as much volatility and tension as Neveu’s harrowing script. Though it has major weaknesses, Neveu’s vision makes for a rich evening of theater.

Three prisoners in contemporary Louisiana are on work detail, refurbishing a 19th-century plantation house. The two white prisoners, fast-talking Gerald and long-suffering Ron, find a certain pleasure in restoring the dilapidated home. But Randy, a black car thief, seems immobilized by the assignment, often staring out the window at the tiny slave huts behind the house when he should be scraping wallpaper. Their white female guard, Patty–who’s as gracious and friendly as a pageant queen but has a mouth like a sailor–calls the convicts every offensive name in the book to keep them on track. The other guard is a middle-aged African-American man, Westfield, who tries to match Patty obscenity for obscenity but, like Randy, seems disturbed by the project. Playing the role of overseer, Westfield is overseen himself by the unconsciously racist Patty.

It quickly becomes clear that someone is sabotaging the refurbishing efforts: Patty finds a hammer pounded through a wall, then a window smashed from inside. Soon Westfield becomes obsessed with the work, bringing the men to the site even when they should be in lockup. He begins to speak of the house as his own, marveling at the happy, prosperous life the slave owner must have had. But he also occasionally walks, leaving the prisoners unsupervised for long periods, as if he can’t stand to be inside the house another minute.

Neveu focuses on Randy and Westfield as the plantation’s unknowable history possesses them and pits them against each other. Much of the evidence of what went on there is gone–at one point Westfield obsesses about the absence of a slave burial ground. But the place’s legacy seeps into the black men’s bones. Throughout the play the characters step out of the action to address an unseen, unnamed investigative board, offering their recollections of pivotal scenes that are not depicted but that clearly lead to the tragic event at the end of the play. That moment of violent betrayal is masterful, but so unconvincingly staged it makes the show end with a whimper.

Heritage is essentially a two-person play. None of Neveu’s white characters has any real stake in the action, and of them only Patty feels fully developed. If even a first-rate actor like David Parkes can’t make Ron feel necessary, the character needs to be given some sort of story. But all the cast dig as deep as they can into Neveu’s seemingly superficial dialogue, unearthing the many tensions between the characters without spelling them out. And Cedric Young and Leonard House Jr. give meticulous, thoughtful performances as Westfield and Randy, making their psychic wounds disquietingly real.

Neveu taps into the kind of gut-level, soul-corroding trauma beyond the grasp of reason and intelligibility. As a result Heritage won’t make anyone rich, but it might well enrich those who see it.

When: Through 5/28: Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 5 and 8:30 PM, Sun 3 PM

Where: American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron

Price: $25-$30

Info: 773-929-1031

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Johnny Knight.