The Guthrie Theater is winding down an awkward season. Chronologically, it is Joseph Haj’s first year as artistic director. Artistically and spiritually, though, Haj’s voice has mixed with the last echoes of Joe Dowling — who left the theater last spring with three sensational and emblematic productions.
Transitions are difficult and the Guthrie this year felt more like a roadhouse than a fully invested regional powerhouse.
Which is prologue to say that “Trouble in Mind,” which opened Friday on the proscenium stage, is by large measure the season’s best production. Haj will direct “South Pacific” this summer so there are still golfers on the course but Valerie Curtis-Newton’s sharp and honest staging of Alice Childress’ script is the leader in the clubhouse.
This 1955 play — which is experiencing a renaissance in regional theaters — starts as a standard backstage comedy and then crawls through personal emotions and racial history to become a meaty, thoughtful exploration of the intersection in which actors’ personal lives confront the fictional roles they portray.
Margo Moorer plays a black actor who walks onto the stage of a lovely old theater (Jennifer Zeyl’s meticulous set design) and breathes in her upcoming Broadway debut. Moorer’s character, Wiletta Mayer, is soon schooling John, a young black colleague (Marcel Spears) in the ways of getting along with the white power brokers — producers, directors, writers. You go along to get along, is Wiletta’s message, and the other blacks cast in “The Chaos in Belleville” — Cleavant Derricks’ excellent Sheldon and Austene Van’s savvy and showy Millie — concur. They know the game and how to play the stereotypical roles they are often assigned.
Trouble arises when hotshot director Al Manners (John Catron) asks his actors to go “Method” and reach deeper into their own feelings as they explore the shaggy script. Wiletta, whose facility for turning a performance has existed on the surface, now confronts her honest feelings about a woman who unwittingly sends her son to a lynching. It’s not true to her heart and there is something wrong with a play that asks a black woman to sacrifice her son so that a white audience can flog itself over old-time Southern racism.
Curtis-Newton has a very steady hand on Childress’ wise script. Derricks’ Sheldon drops his cheery facade with a moving testimony of seeing a lynching as a child. Catron’s Manners even gets his fair voice, expressing that the white man’s fraternity is not a monolith but a pack of scoundrels crawling over each other on the way to the top.
Childress set her sights higher than simply demonizing any one of her characters. She indicted a system that had created unfavorable symbols of ethnic and racial groups. Hollywood and Broadway created stereotypes that became de facto historical representations; black actors had little choice but to go along if they wanted to work.
Curtis-Newton’s cast is excellent throughout (nice to see Nathaniel Fuller get a chance to stretch his legs as a feisty old go-fer). Costume designer Melanie Taylor Burgess indulged her eye for 1950s fashions with impeccable taste.
As provocative as “Trouble in Mind” is, the show is a comforting reminder of how important the Guthrie can be in this town.
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