At the beginning of Three Ways Home, currently being produced by the Shadow Theatre Company, Sharon, a white career woman, has volunteered at a social-services agency. She's assigned to visit Dawn, an African-American welfare recipient suspected of abusing her four children. Sharon's opening monologues are wittily incisive as she introduces us to her privileged world and wonders just what she's gotten herself into. Then we witness Dawn's first angry monologue, and we wonder the same thing. Unsure how to close her introductory note, wanting to seem neither cold nor presumptuous, Sharon had signed off with "luv." Is this woman completely ignorant, Dawn wonders, shaking the offending piece of paper, or is she English or something? The tension builds as the women's first meeting approaches.
Meanwhile, Dawn's sixteen-year-old son, Frankie, is clearly in trouble, retreating more and more into a lost, angry world in which he fantasizes about the X-Men and hustles his body for money.
Playwright Casey Kurtti gets some things right, but she also gets crucial elements wrong. The friendship that eventually evolves between Sharon and Dawn is touching at moments, but not entirely believable. And it rests to some extent on stereotypes. Dawn is the more streetwise of the two women. To win her trust, Sharon has to show she's equally tough, which she does by dropping the occasional expletive. Some scenes are simply not credible, like those that involve Sharon reaching out to Dawn through the film and novel The Color Purple, which Dawn -- inexplicably, given that the play is set in 1989 -- seems to know almost nothing about.
Three Ways Home
Ralph Waldo Emerson Center, 1420 Ogden Street
Presented by Shadow Theatre Company through September 25, 303-837-9355, www.shadowtheatre.com
As a character, Frankie is so oddly written that you wonder if Kurtti has ever known a real sixteen-year-old boy. To begin with, most of them are way past the X-Men. This one leaps about the stage in a ninja outfit, giggles and carries on like a thirteen-year-old, leaving you wondering if he's intended to be mentally deficient. But if he is, why doesn't Dawn -- who's much given to listing her woes -- ever mention it? Why doesn't Sharon notice?
Plot threads begin and then tail off. The original premise -- that Sharon is about to visit a child abuser -- is a daring one that opens up all kinds of dramatic possibilities. Think of the skill it would take for the playwright to keep us interested in, even empathetic toward, a character who hurts her children, and to show Sharon overcoming her natural revulsion to become close to this woman. But it turns out that Dawn has been wrongly accused, and the issue of child abuse promptly drops out of sight. I'm not sure what we're supposed to make of her ignorance about Frankie.
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And what about those three siblings, anyway? Dawn never seems to think about child care, school, earaches, getting food on the table. On occasion, she seems to be carrying her youngest child, but then the focus of the action shifts, her arms drop to her sides and -- poof! -- no baby.
Finally, the climax is melodramatic and entirely unconvincing.
Hilary Blair conveys Sharon's brisk, shrewd businesswoman persona well. She's less convincing in her passionate fights with Dawn, in part because she doesn't have full control of her voice, and when she gets indignant, it threatens to fly right out of her throat. Adrienne Martin-Fullwood has a terrific energy as Dawn. Her rages are genuinely scary and her gentleness, when she permits it to emerge, is disarming. Quatis Tarkington is very talented. He's graceful and energetic, and he's the kind of actor with whom you feel strong empathy. At one point, Frankie's mother describes him sitting at the kitchen table, reading to his siblings by flashlight. You glance at the actor as she speaks, and he's riveting, his face grave and still. But Frankie is more an agglomeration of imagined teenage characteristics than a character, and when Tarkington is leaping about the stage, making odd noises and laughing maniacally, he loses us.
The chasm between black and white people in America is a wound that threatens the integrity of the entire culture. A few years ago, Patricia Raybon, a local writer and educator, attacked the issue head-on in her memoir, My First White Friend, an attempt to exorcise the hatred she had long felt for white people. I admire the fact that Kurtti, a white playwright, has chosen to mine the same territory, and many people who have maintained friendships across the divide will recognize Dawn and Sharon's disagreements about words, food, the significance of certain events and even entertaining ways to spend an evening. I also admire director Jeffrey Nickelson's instincts in choosing to stage this would-be healing work. But sometimes good intentions aren't quite enough.