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Entertainment Arts

Review: A powerful revival of 'Trouble in Mind'

There's an unexpected case of theatrical synergy going on in the region, with two productions that look squarely at issues of race, identity and self-esteem.

At Everyman Theatre, you'll find a potent staging of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun," which became in 1959 the first work by an African-American woman to reach Broadway.

At Arena Stage, there's an absorbing revival of "Trouble in Mind," a play by Alice Childress that almost became the first work by an African-American woman to reach Broadway. It enjoyed an acclaimed run off-Broadway in 1955, but efforts to move it to the Great White Way proved fruitless.

Adding an extra twist: "Trouble in Mind" uses a play-within-a-play format to reveal conflicts within a biracial company rehearsing for a Broadway show about racism.

And giving extra interest to the Arena State revival is the fact that is directed by Irene Lewis, former artistic director of Center Stage, making her debut with the D.C. company.

Lewis has tackled the play before. This is largely a reprise of the Center Stage presentation of "Trouble in Mind" that she guided in 2007, with several of the same cast members, including the treasured E. Faye Butler. The original design team remains, too — David Korins (the impeccably atmospheric set) and Catherine Zuber (the equally evocative costumes).

Childress, who had more than her share of disappointments as a budding actress confronting rigid color barriers, captured the backstage milieu with keen detail when she penned "Trouble in Mind." Characters, black and white, are richly drawn. The differences, spoken and unspoken, between those characters emerge with similar clarity.

The play is often very funny (I wonder if 1950s audiences would have been amused by the same things). Preachiness is largely avoided, allowing points to emerge naturally as actors work their way through a problematic script called "Chaos in Belleville," which attempts to deliver an enlightened, anti-lynching message.

That process is less problematic for the whites than for those assigned roles as stereotypical Southern blacks in the era of Jim Crow. One of those actors, Wiletta Mayer, accustomed to portraying maids (invariably named after flowers of gems), starts to challenge the director over matters of interpretation and motivation.

From that one spark of opposition, "Trouble in Mind" derives a good deal of dramatic weight and power. The work might be even stronger if Childress had written subtler lines for the play-within-the-play (it could be called "Cliche in Belleville"), but the device does it job of building the drama in the rehearsal room to a rewarding peak.

When an older actor named Sheldon tells the others of his experience as a boy witnessing a lynching, the artifice of the theater falls away and everything that has been simmering in the company suddenly is clarified.

As Sheldon, Thomas Jefferson Byrd delivers that monologue with affecting understatement. At one point, stretching out his arms to imitate the body he saw being dragged, Byrd shows us that the Sheldon isn't even aware of the crucifixion image he has just conjured.

Butler commands the stage as Wiletta, dispensing the character's humor, wisdom and defiance with terrific flair, each rise and fall of her musical voice enriching the portrayal. She does some amazing things in the climactic passages, conveying Wiletta's hurt and unshakable dignity to electrifying effect.

Starla Benford sparkles as Millie, an actor who has made her peace with the system but begins to question herself. Brandon J. Dirden easily captures the naivete and charm of John. Gretchen Hall does the same as Judy, the white counterpart to that character.

Marty Lodge offers admirably nuanced work in the thankless role of the director, Al Manners, who loves to touch Wiletta, but never really sees her. Other vibrant contributions come from Daren Kelly (Bill), Garrett Neergaard (Eddie) and Laurence O'Dwyer (Henry).

With its vivid depiction of backstage life, "Trouble in Mind" remains greatly entertaining. With its razor-sharp dissection of the things that define us and divide us, this oddly neglected play is still devastating, too, as this deftly directed, artfully acted production reaffirms.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"Trouble in Mind" runs through Oct. 23 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., S.W., Washington. Tickets are $55 to $85. Call 202-488-3300 or go to arenastage.org.

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