There's a fraught, intimate scene in "The Highwaymen," Josh Wilder's new drama about the building of Interstate 94 through St. Paul's thriving Rondo neighborhood, that captures the human tension suffusing the work.
A white retired city planner, George Herrold (played with understatement by Peter Thomson), who is partly responsible for the routing of the highway, sits down for a shave in the chair of black barber Timothy Howard (Kevin D. West, bridling but dignified).
George has come to say farewell to Tim, who actively opposed the highway as destructive to his neighborhood — and to him, personally. George is Tim's last customer before his business is demolished. When George leans his head back for the shave and Tim raises his razor, we're not sure what will happen. It could be Sweeney Todd all over again.
"Highwaymen," playing at the History Theatre in St. Paul through Feb. 26, dramatizes a scenario that played out in metropolises across the nation as a result of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. The interstate highway system it created meant progress for the nation, but at a great cost to urban black communities that were split in two by superhighways.
Wilder's 100-minute one-act play is a requiem for the homes, institutions and gathering places upended by the construction. It also is a valentine to the bifurcated neighborhood, offering Rondo as whole and wholesome.
Director Jamil Jude's smart production takes place on Wrara Plesoiu's evocative turntable set, which represents three locales. There's a small home, a City Hall planning room and the barbershop where the men — it's all men deciding the future in this play — conduct their separate and unequal business.
The play is populated by genuine historical figures who live in racially isolated worlds, including city planner Herrold, city engineer George Shepard (James Detmar) and deputy commissioner of highways Frank Marzitelli (E.J. Subkoviak) on the white side, and the Rev. Floyd Massey (Rex Isom Jr.) and C.J., a trash collector (Darrick Mosley), on the black side.
These actors do yeoman's work. Subkoviak's Marzitelli is cold and sneering — a could-care-less kind of guy. Detmar's Shepard is not as disdainful but he's also cool. Thomson's Herrold is sympathetic and understanding, perhaps softened by age.
West invests the barber with depth. Facing the loss of his business and relationships within the neighborhood, this is not a character who suffers fools. Isom, likewise, brings a stately dignity to his role as a community leader caught between his congregation's wishes and the authorities he feels he must placate. Mosley, an edgy young actor, invests C.J. with a barely tamped-down fire.
"Highwaymen" successfully escapes the stiltedness that sometimes dooms history-based work. The dialogue is contemporary and sometimes cutting.
In the end, Wilder's play is a call to action. As layered images of a demolished past rise up onstage, and on-screen at the History Theatre, we are reminded that the price of progress is not always borne equally. For some, it's a rupture that lasts a lifetime.