There’s no lack of attention to detail in “Under This Roof,” which had its world premiere in the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio last weekend. From the hat rack at the door and the lacy antimacassar on the back of a chair to the Brylcreem ads that waft from the radio, this piece reconstructs a particular time and place as carefully as its central character, Raymond, a builder by trade, would craft a perfectly pitched roof.
“Under This Roof” is the third production of Full Circle Theater, an inspired collaboration of a handful of Twin Cities theater artists led by co-artistic directors Rick Shiomi and Martha B. Johnson. Written by veteran local actor Barbara Kingsley and set in 1948 Cleveland, the play shines a light on a bleak side of the post-World War II economic boom.
Raymond, played with commanding presence by Brian A. Grandison, has been laid low by a fall from a roof. Grandison skillfully evokes the grimacing pain and peevish frustration of a proud black man who fears he can no longer rely on his strength and the skill of his hands to provide a modicum of security for his family.
His wife, Mamie (Yolande Bruce), is similarly racked with worry, as she juggles caring for an invalid with her own employment as a domestic. Out of desperation, she hires outside help to care for Raymond, little expecting that it will arrive in the form of a white woman equally down on her luck.
One of the strongest scenes in this production occurs when Mamie opens the door to find Bessie Washington (Laura Esping) standing on her doorstep. With her perfectly styled hair and impeccable gloves, Esping looks more suited to a tea party than a sickbed, creating a moment of cognitive dissonance that Bruce uses to full comic advantage.
Unfortunately, this promising setup begins to fizzle almost from the get-go. While director James A. Williams and a strong cast lend the details of the production careful attention, crafting layered portraits out of the push and pull of each character’s relationship to the others, the play lacks the distinct arc that would give them much scope. One promising theme after another bubbles up — gentrification, the exploitation of black workers in the postwar building boom, the treatment of people with disabilities — only to peter out as the piece meanders along.
There’s much to like in this production, from Michael Burden’s gemlike period set to the brittle yet cautiously sympathetic bridge that Esping and Grandison build between their two very different characters.
Ultimately, however, the play itself is better crafted in its trim than in its foundation.
Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities critic.