When Thelma Higgins gives folks the finger, the gesture is unmistakable but sly.
It’s part of the act of showing them her ring. Thelma (Austene Van) is half of a wife-and-husband private investigation firm in 1966 Los Angeles, and she often meets people who doubt that she’s a lady detective (or dick, as they say with surprise). She’s peeved because being a Mrs. is not the only way for a strong, smart woman to have status.
Thelma and her mysterious husband Vernon (Harry Waters Jr.) are at the throbbing heart of “West of Central,” Christina Ham’s clever and breezy nod to “Thin Man” crime novelist Dashiell Hammett that premiered last weekend at Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis.
The action begins when a woman bursts into Thelma’s office to warn her that Vernon’s life is in danger. June Franklin (Olivia Wilusz) is the rebellious daughter of wealthy real estate mogul Sidney Franklin (Stephen Yoakam), who has disinherited her. June seems to know more about Vernon than his wife does. For that, and other reasons, she’s a marked young woman.
The two-act play’s title invokes South Central Los Angeles — a historic black neighborhood where people’s dreams have been impacted by the building of a highway, restrictive real estate covenants, redlining and a host of other systemic ills. Ham’s work doubles as homage to black Los Angeles and to the film noir genre.
Her writing, poetic and lyrical, is suffused with playfulness and wit. Sometimes, in fact, that gorgeous writing sounds a touch self-aware. Maybe the actors relish Ham’s words so much that they don’t want to lose any syllables as they enunciate lines that are still settling into their bodies.
There’s much to cheer in director Hayley Finn’s imaginative production, which has cinematic spark and smooth choreography. The opening scene involves a cigarette being lit in the dark as lights come up on Thelma in her office. Van and Waters move like stylized dancers.
Staged with a lush jazz score by sound designer Katharine Horowitz and an artful set by Joel Sass, the show has an appropriately dark palette, as barred light (designed by Michael Wangen) shadows the characters.
The principal performers do lovely work. Tack-sharp and self-assured, Van packs heat. She’s well matched with Waters, playing an enigmatic man with whom Thelma thought she had a natural bond. Vernon operates on many planes at once and Waters cultivates a sense of mystery.
Yoakam, known for playing Shakespearean monarchs, brings gravitas to his role as a genial Machiavelli who may reward someone — or kill them. He keeps us guessing while Wilusz, as Sid’s feral daughter, moves with the adrenaline of an express-lane driver heedless of the danger around her.
The cast is rounded out by Brian A. Grandison, as Sid’s smarmy, self-satisfied right-hand man; Theo Langason, wittily deadpan as a black L.A. policeman who wants to make detective; and Aimee K. Bryant as a woozy woman grieving a family member shot outside the detectives’ office.
Mysteries abound in Ham’s play. But the quality of this beautifully executed new work should be no secret.
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