Review by Kathleen Campion
Adrienne Kennedy is back! She’s been framing her dramas with grit and lyricism since the 1960s. Now 86, she offers another haunting encounter in He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box.
There is enormous economy in this script, not least in the modest 45 minutes it takes to tell the tale.
She puts only two people on the stage, Kay (Juliana Canfield) and Chris (Tom Pecinka). The young lovers are star-crossed in a most American way, Adam and Eve scarred by America’s original sin. Their skin tones are not very different. Still, the Jim Crow world of 1941 Georgia dresses Kay in gingham and puts her in the “colored” school, while Chris, in white shirt and tie works for his banker father on the school’s accounts. They are dizzy with first love. There is no power struggle between them, yet we understand, given the time and place, they are doomed and surrounded.
Kennedy haunts her characters with the thundering violence of history. Kay is bedeviled by her mother’s end. She will never know if her 15 year-old mother, impregnated by a white man, killed herself or was murdered. Chris, a white boy of relative privilege, lives with the ghosts of his father’s Negro women and their children. His mother tells him his daddy loved them more.
The two actors never leave the stage, though for the bulk of the drama he is away and they are writing to each other. Very little of what they say is dialogue. He speaks, even sings, while she is a presence, there-but-not -here, visible but apart.
Their fragility is underscored by the commonplace cruelties of race in America. Their world of conventional, homegrown, racial apartheid gets the occasional jarring report from the outside — a radio reference to the attack on Pearl Harbor, for example. But, in the sense that all politics is local, all racism is as well.
Kennedy maintains a poet’s frugality with words. She has Chris expound on how clever it was for one of his forebears to have designed railway cars to accommodate the different sensibilities of black and white—velvet upholstered seats for the whites, straw seats for the coloreds. Shortly after that discourse, we see Kay is riding on a train. “‘Nuff said.” So tight.
There is the shorthand of “how it was” in nearly every speech. Chris is jealous of the affection his father “squandered” on his Negro children, of the piano he bought them, even of the tombstones he put on their mothers’ graves. Kay’s grandmother and aunts replay the tales of loss, recasting her mother’s death at the age that Kay is now.
Christopher Barreca’s set has the sweep of a bigger space, a beautiful core and walls that welcome the video projections. Director Evan Yionoulis breathes some spaces into the action and takes some chances too, particularly in directing Chris’ realization of all that he’d honored had soured. In purely physical terms, her trick for turning back time makes a stunning finale.
The play’s run is ending and if you can get there by Sunday, lucky you. I’d expect to see it produced again and when it is…go see it.
He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box – By Adrienne Kennedy; directed by Evan Yionoulis
WITH: Juliana Canfield (Kay), Tom Pecinka (Chris/Harrison Aherne).
Designed by Christopher Barreca, costumes by Montana Levi Blanco, lighting by Donald Holder, composer and sound designer is Justin Ellington, video designer is Austin Switser. Presented by Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place
Brooklyn. Through February 11. Running time: 45 minutes.