THEATRE REVIEW: Barrington Stage’s ‘Well Intentioned White People’ is 89 minutes of excellent, accelerating drama
Well Intentioned White People
By Rachel Lynett
Directed by Tiffany Nichole Greene
“Doing nothing is also a choice – just not the right one.”
Like the quote from this play that tops this review, author, Rachel Lynett has a choice to make: Let this excellent study of human interaction stand as it is, or make some tough decisions and finish the play. After 89 minutes of excellent, accelerating drama, the play comes to a stopping point and leaves its characters and audience without a solid conclusion. There are those things in life that seemingly have no end, that continue in ways you either anticipate accurately or cannot determine but, in a play like this one that takes on so many issues, something needs to find a real place even if everything cannot be resolved. Something, some point, must be resolved before the audience steps out into the night.
“Well Intentioned White People” is one of those fascinating problem plays that fascinate from the first moment to the last. Rachel Lynett has written some brilliant dialogue to enhance the problem she addresses, but she has either neglected to make decisions about her characters choices or she has not been able as yet to find a way to complete the 90-minute one-act. There is an easy point at which to break the play into two acts: the second major act of violence taken against Cass’s car. There is room to extend the play’s final scenes into an exciting second act, perhaps 20 minutes or so longer than the current piece. That would be plenty of time to find a way to finish one or more of the stories that make up the people, place and period of the play. I hope that the author can do this and create a new classic theater-piece, one that would enthrall audiences for a long time to come. Right now, we have a fabulously written and directed sketch and that’s just not enough.
Not even with the fascinating Myxolydia Tyler in the leading role of Cass, a college professor seeking tenure, and whose race and personality have attracted a threatening victimizer. At first not impressed with the threats, Cass has ignored them, but the latest act of violence has unnerved her a bit and the story that follows is seriously tied to her humanity and her situation. She is forced to deal with racially biased acts that threaten her present security and her unsure future. Tyler is a strong and sensitive actress who plays against the obvious reaction most of the time and makes Cass’s situation even more singular and ugly. Tyler is a perfect choice for this role. She has a presence and that is rare. You feel her as much as you see her or hear her, perhaps due to the intimate space at the St. Germain Stage, but I truly believe that she communicates with her eyes, her skin, her hands and her mouth, particularly when her words are bent on impressing someone with her honesty, real or faked. It’s a lovely performance.
As her roommate and former lover, Viv, Victoria Frings has the hard job of being 100 percent sincere while offending Cass with every word she utters. Her role is so well written and directed that Frings is always an amusing yet sympathetic foil for Cass’s anger and disappointment. Viv wants to be the woman she believes herself to be, yet even she realizes that she can’t compete with her ideal of herself. Frings is fun to watch and to listen to as she protests for Cass when Cass will not do it for herself. Frings is an excellent choice for this role.
Cass has two professional colleagues in this play, Dean West and Parker, another professor with a different and diverse backstory. The play is set in “a hip liberal town in a red state somewhere in the United States.” Diversity is looked for, looked up to and encouraged. Cass is black, first-generation American with parents from the Caribbean. Parker is a transgendered Hispanic. Dean West is the epitome of whiteness, with an utterly “liberal” background including a semester undergraduate at an all-black college.
As Dean West, the wonderful Andrea Cirie plays the amazingly written role of a woman who is too quick to embrace any and every scheme to prove her liberal leanings. Cirie plays this odd-duck role with so much gusto and enthusiasm that its dark turns come as surprises even though they could be predicted because of the circumstances surrounding them. The actress understands the formality of the relationships Dean West maintains and she uses that to good effect, turning the most affectionate moments into dry, professional expressions of concern. She exemplifies the title character of the play even though the play is not really about her and her motives.
As Parker, the male minority professor, Samy el-Noury gives a remarkable performance of the transgender teacher who has been outed to the faculty by the Dean. El-Noury is excellent in this role, which actually sounds remarkably like his own personal history, and his playing has that personal resonance that only good theater can give to an actor’s reality. He is also transgender, a requirement by the author for playing this role, and there is little about him that gives that away on sight or sound. It is only the subtleties brought to the role by el-Noury that illuminate the truths behind his work. As Cass’s best friend Parker, the actor helps shore up Tyler’s performance by giving a different level of real concern to their scenes together. Watching them together, one might think they were improvising, making up their roles and relationships on the spot, but it is just their joint performances that gives this impression. They are great together in a problem play about what may be their own, actual problems. Their relationship needs a better ending to be truly successful, for they get into some difficult deep waters in the course of the play.
Cass’s real nemesis is neither the dean nor the attacker, but rather a young student with an agenda of her own — Mara, played by Cathryn Wake. Here is a youngster so ambitious she would sacrifice what is best in her life to emerge in first position for the anonymous onlooker. Mara is a troublemaker and Wake plays her with a depth of sincerity that is frightening. Knowing, as we ultimately do, what her deeds and words have accomplished, it is chilling to watch her turn on the charm and then be subdued by her teacher/friend Cass, who despises the girl. Their scenes together, Wake and Tyler, are truly electric, sparking and flaring as they do.
But once again, the play falls into the hands of Myxolydia Tyler, and she is so believable that no one else can quite touch the quality of her work no matter how good everyone else is in this piece. Surely some of this is due to the work done by director Tiffany Nichole Greene. The use of the stage space, neatly designed by Adam Rigg, is exemplary as open space becomes confined space, the play moving with filmic ease from one scene to the next. Greene is at least partly responsible for the control each actor has over her or his role. Their union in creativity is wonderful.
Lux Haac has done a fine job with costumes, defining each character perfectly. Scott Pinkney’s lighting is the highest quality, making four distinct playing areas out of one, single-unit set and defining time of day and mood of moment with lighting lust.
The only problem with the play is the play itself: finely crafted; well-designed with its easy, definable characters’ voices; but seemingly unfinished. Lynett really needs to think about the possibilities that abound and find her way to an ending that is stronger than a cup of oolong tea. I hope she can make it happen. I truly do hope so. The play is so good it needs to be perfect.
Well Intentioned White People plays on the St. Germain Stage at Barrington Stage Company’s Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, 36 Linden St., Pittsfield, Massachusetts, through Saturday, Sept. 8. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, go online to barringtonstageco.org or call (413) 236-8888.