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REVIEW: ‘American Son’ at Barrington Stage, a stunning world premiere

This is not a classic -- it soon will be, though -- that you've seen a hundred times before; this is a new play with a definite future. This is a rare chance to be in on the first stage of that journey.

American Son
By Christopher Demos-Brown
Directed by Julianne Boyd

“When dealing with a problem personality, try to diffuse the situation.”

There is a love scene close to the end of Christopher Demos-Brown’s play “American Son” that almost takes you by surprise. “Almost” because it seems to be an inevitable moment. “Almost” because it is truly tender and almost nourishing. “Almost” because this play is not about two people who love one another, or even ONCE loved one another. This play is about issues and people caught in them.

Kendra Ellis-Connor is waiting in a Miami police station for information about her missing 18-year-old son, Jamal. There is little offered and when her ex-husband Scott – an FBI agent with no clout among the local police – arrives, there is still little told about his wherabouts or his situation. This American son is a mixture of black and white heritage and, at this point in his life, he is acting out his frustrations at an unhappy home life. His parents are neither aware of the severity of his problems nor the potential outcome of his current difficulties. What they are is angry and frustrated with the system, with one another and with themselves. They each know they’ve made mistakes in their marriage and its aftermath. They both acknowledge their lack of true commitment to one another. He and she are willing to act on behalf of their child but neither one knows how or why or when or what is appropriate.

The situations and the setting are all necessary for the drama and the humor in Demos-Brown’s play. Commissioned by Barrington Stage Company and having its world premiere on its mainstage in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, this new play by a writer whose name meant nothing to me is clearly a winner, a play from a man who knows the system he writes about here and who knows how to create a piece of theater that holds your attention for nearly 90 uninterrrupted minutes. This is the sixth of his plays, mostly produced in Florida, all of them dealing with situations that have a legal or religious base. They all sound interesting, but this one is definitely compelling . . . and moving.

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Tamara Tunie as Kendra Ellis-Connor. Photo: Scott Barrow.

Tamara Tunie is Kendra and I cannot imagine anyone better for the role. She plays contained anguish brilliantly and, when she allows her inner self to take over her outer person, she is a demon released. She makes her character’s demands heard and felt and her honesty in playing these moments is emotionally devastating. When she weakens, she is utterly feminine. When she is smart and clever, she is utterly feminine. When she is harsh and demanding, she is the same. The unity she brings to Kendra is a remarkable achievement, for the author has given her definite split personality traits and while she switches among them as needed; her fuller personality never varies. We always know her, know who she is and how she is motivated. Only in the love scene does that slip and alter, but only momentarily, and we can feel with her the need to return to a simpler, or at least different, time.

Scott Ellis is played with a passionate undertone by Michael Hayden. Here is a man who feels everything with the nerve-endings in his skin. He is emotional and potentially violent. He is erotic without trying. He is erratic in his reactions. Confident in his sexual health. He is a firecracker with its fuse alight but, even when he goes “off,” it is with the control of inane sanity on a rampage. He can check himself and remain in control, but Hayden allows us to see the fire beneath the surface and it is chilling. As he comes to grips with losses he also comes to grip with who he has been and still could be if the circumstances were different. He is fascinating to watch, as much for the role as for the actor in that role.

Two other actors inhabit this play: Luke Smith and Andre Ware. Ware has the unfortunate position of being the “deus ex machina,” the deliverer of the message, the news, the truths. He handles it well when it comes and, in all that precedes that duty, he plays the dirty word that no one wants to use and he does it with honesty and clarity. Smith does just the opposite in a role that only allows him to be the abused, misunderstood person whose place in the drama is part of his daily routine. Paul Larkin, his role, is that of an official who cannot do what he might wish to do because his proscribed duties are circumspect and, naturally, limitations don’t suit him very well. Both actors are a part of the pattern of life in this play and they fill their spaces with the grace of professionals — both in their roles and in their performance of them.

Julianne Boyd has done a wonderful job bringing all of this to life on her home stage. From the opening moments with Kendra alone in the police station to the final cries of horror, anger and anguish, she weaves a spell of realism that keeps us intensely occupied with the people in the play. It is a job so well done by the director that every second of the play feels natural and real and undisturbed by any outside force. The violent scene has been nicely staged by fight choreographer Ryan Winkles who, once again, translates emotion into physical reality.

This production is simple with a natural and realistic set by Brian Prather, character-appropriate costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti, and simple lighting by Scott Pinkney who doesn’t overdo a single moment.

This is NOT summer fare. Not a classic — it soon will be, though — that you’ve seen a hundred times before; this is a new play with a definite future. This is a rare chance to be in on the first stage of that journey, a trip worth taking in a runaway bus of reality and emotional tremors, even with its heavy human toll.

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American Son plays on the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage at Barrington Stage Company, 30 Union Street, Pittsfield, Massachusetts through Saturday, July 9. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, call the box office at (413) 236-8888, or go online at www.barringtonstageco.org.

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