The Upper Room

Pegasus Players

Of course everything that happens on a stage is artificial–but it can also be just plain false. David Barr III’s new The Upper Room at Pegasus Players brings this distinction to mind. The piece has many virtues: it’s well structured and good-hearted and even true, in the sense that the story is based on fact. But somehow Barr never quite breaches the wall between the genuine and the just suppose.

The Upper Room is an account of the friendship in the early 40s between Viktor Lowenfeld, a Jewish artist who fled Germany in 1938, and John Biggers, the well-known African-American artist who was one of his students at Hampton Institute. But Barr never really focuses on either man: the play begins with a mournful Hebrew prayer, flashes forward to a speech by Biggers when he returns in triumph to his alma mater, then flashes back to the story of the Lowenfeld era at Hampton, a black college founded by whites in Virginia. Biggers steps forward every now and then to narrate the Lowenfeld story, but he’s barely given preference over the two other students in the play–Barr’s stand-ins for all the young people Lowenfeld influenced.

In this reverse To Sir With Love, the teacher must encourage excessively docile pupils to challenge authority. There’s a fundamental tension between Lowenfeld’s commitment to liberal-arts education and Hampton Institute’s emphasis on bettering its students by training them to perform skilled labor, which runs the gamut from plumbing to teaching but doesn’t admit the possibility of a profession like art. Surely it was this tug-of-war between the educator and the educational institution that attracted Barr to the story in the first place, and not the hackneyed parallels between the oppression of Jews and the enslavement of black people. But it’s those parallels that get the most time. Barr makes his students unreasonably ignorant about events in Europe and gives Lowenfeld a convenient interest in jazz. He also glosses over some of the unattractive aspects of relations between African-Americans and Jews, including rather widespread anti-Semitism on one side and fairly prominent condescension on the other. I don’t expect a complete history of the civil-rights movement in a two-and-a-half-hour production, but the playwright’s omissions from the story are glaring.

At the same time, Barr includes information that’s extraneous and contributes to the air of dutiful coverage and thus unreality. The character of Charles White–a black artist friend of Lowenfeld’s–seems an excuse to list the famous African-Americans White portrayed: “I know this is Harriet Tubman, but who’s this?” “Why, that’s Crispus Attucks, the first American killed in the Boston tea party.” One of the hardest things about writing historical fiction is to wear your research lightly, recognizing that not everything you’ve learned will contribute to a reader’s understanding of your story. The same is true of docudrama.

The play remains involving much of the time, however, thanks to the two appealing performances at its center: Scott Aiello as Lowenfeld and Andre Teamer as Biggers deliver such compelling portraits of these fundamentally sweet, decent people that together they almost obscure Barr’s failure to create a relationship between them. When the time comes for Biggers and his fellow students to say good-bye to Lowenfeld, the moment is touching just because these two are so genuine.

The other actors fare less well at overcoming the script’s lapses. Cecil Burroughs as the bad guy–the black dean of the college who underestimates, and therefore undermines, his students–and Gary Saipe as the gruff but lovable college president, a sort of redneck Lou Grant, can’t get much beyond those bare outlines, though each has considerable warmth and obvious acting chops. Jenn SavaRyan as Lowenfeld’s wife gets nothing to do except embody victimized Judaism and insist her husband leave his beloved Hampton students for a better-paying job at Penn State. Barr’s casual sexism shows up elsewhere–the one female student is a no-talent Goody Two-shoes, and her only big scene revolves around her effort to drop out of school to marry her uncle. But it’s hard to get annoyed about the portrayal of characters who don’t really seem to exist anyway. Director Alex Levy moves everyone about smartly on a stage beautifully lit by Denise Karczewski and ably decorated by Jack Magaw with period art.

Relationships between people are hard enough to depict persuasively and with power. Relations between peoples are in a whole other league. In his effort to convey the latter, Barr lets the flesh-and-blood characters slip away and leaves us with a busy cartoon.

When: Through 4/10: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM

Where: O’Rourke Performing Arts Center, Truman College, 1145 W. Wilson

Price: $17-$25

Info: 773-878-9761

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