January 19, 2013
The Rogue in Detroit Repertory Theatre, Reviews, new/original plays

“A man is what a man does.” Spoken early and with heady conviction, this would appear to be the thesis statement of Postcards. The power in the platitude comes from its simplicity, but, as examined by playwright Bill Costanza, it’s an assertion that grows intractable with time and context. “A man is what a man did”; “A man is what a man regrets” — how much weight should a deplorable past bear? In the world premiere production at Detroit Repertory Theatre, director Barbara Busby makes unwaveringly clear the wrongness of an appalling chapter of the American past, while at the same time raising intriguing questions about the long-lasting consequences of the unconscionable.

The play begins in the New York City of 1954, in a small apartment where Hattie McLendon (Cassaundra Freeman) and Rachel (Jacquie Floyd) discuss a mutual acquaintance, whose absence from the scene is conspicuously felt. With the halting allusion people use to speak of the unspeakable, the women lay down just enough of a mysterious framework to begin filling in the biographical blanks of white photographer Alvin Moseby (Dax Anderson). The Alvin of ’54 is at the forefront of the jazz scene, obsessively documenting future greats on the rise (a fervor that similarly informs Burr Huntington’s luscious sound design). But to understand the whole story is to follow Alvin back to 1939 Shiloh, Tennessee, to his marriage with Loretta (Kelly Komlen), and to the origin of an unremarkable box labeled “Postcards,” whose devastating contents have followed and haunted him throughout his life.

Much of the ensuing story looks for the extremes of dualities as it veers between the two settings: one character’s outspoken support of civil rights is stymied by the animatedly hateful racist attitudes of Shiloh; actions are continually attributed to either angels or devils; even designer Harry Wetzel’s set is rigidly bisected between “there” and “here,” “then” and “now.” These choices both bolster and reinforce the change evident in Alvin himself, and it is wondrous to see Anderson morph in the blink of an eye from gently discouraged composure to vibrant passion. But perhaps most stark are the obvious, unfortunate parallels in Alvin’s profession — the inescapable contrast between his visual celebrations of black musicians in their element and the black subjects he photographed, in a very different light, in the Depression-era South. The revelations of Alvin’s hidden past may be somewhat expected with the benefit of ample context, but they carry no less weight or repulsion in the moment of discovery.

The opposites embedded in Costanza’s text do come with some pitfalls. Because certain past events must be presumed in order to arrive at the established present, the rendering of past scenes pits Alvin in staunchly right-or-wrong decisions backed by roughly drawn types: Floyd’s progressive Pollyanna, Komlen’s crisply unchallenged odiousness, and an oily authority figure (Michael Force) for good measure. In response, Busby and company double down on the foregone pall of the Shiloh half of the story, driving home Alvin’s emerging conviction with triumphant finality, especially when Anderson and Komlen hold nothing back at a critical juncture. The same dearth of ambiguity is found in a late climactic scene, resulting in a vast tonal departure that — despite providing curious opportunities for lighting (Thomas Schraeder) and costumes (Judy Dery) — doesn’t give Alvin leave to make a key decision himself, depriving the viewer of Anderson’s skillful character work.

At the other end of the spectrum, the script and the production both gain inspiration in the superlatively awful dead ends where the present must contend with the immovable past. With past actions established and unable to be undone, the characters are unmoored from the good/evil continuum, and Freeman’s Hattie in particular is allowed to be alive and human in a way the others cannot. Her visceral reaction to Alvin’s past and grappling with her conception of him is beautifully matched by Anderson’s indefensible contrition; their navigation of the messy middle ground of having been party to (but vehemently regretting) past atrocities makes for the richest material in the play.

In less than two hours, Postcards tells two connected stories: one didactic but appallingly historic, the other less assured but full of layered complexity. The resulting production finds complementary strength in its dualities, but despite the focus on “what a man does,” here, reaction intriguingly outstrips action.

Postcards is no longer playing.
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