Native Son, Stage Actors Ensemble, at the Performance Loft, Second Unitarian Church of Chicago. Tom Small’s adaptation of Richard Wright’s adaptation of his own novel opens with a bang: as a giant rat interrupts the morning routine of a poor black family of four, a single lightbulb swings back and forth like a pendulum, casting long shadows across their faces. Bigger Thomas, the play’s antihero, suddenly emerges from the darkness with a skillet and retreats almost as quickly–a fitting metaphor for his withdrawal from civilized society and a portent of the violence to come.

Though the images that follow aren’t nearly as arresting, this staging does capture the essence of Native Son, drawing connections between Bigger’s violence and his spiritual rape at the hands of white society. The first half, which culminates in Bigger’s initial act of brutality, is remarkably tight, but that focus is lost in the second act, which abandons true drama in favor of screwball comedy and leaden sermonizing.

Still, Charles Glenn’s performance as Bigger is positively mesmerizing: playing the character as both victimizer and victim of circumstances, Glenn plumbs the depths of Bigger’s polluted soul with equal parts anger, righteous indignation, and sadness. Even when the script spirals into excess, as in an off-kilter courtroom scene that attempts to push Bigger toward greater redemption, Glenn’s vacant eyes and furrowed brow alone tell a thousand stories of black disenfranchisement.

–Nick Green