The world premiere of "Southbridge" by Reginald Edmund and directed by Russ Tutterow was a great example of the powerful, well-written and sublimely acted productions the small Chicago Dramatists theater has become so well-known for.
The drama takes place in 1881 in the Ohio River Valley in a small town that likes to think of itself as progressive. A young black man known as Stranger is the town oddity as he has visions. But that doesn't stop his loving wife, Nadia, from caring deeply for him. Nor does it stop up-and-coming black businessman Edwin from getting Stranger involved in his new venture; a fancy hotel.
Stranger, who's real name is Christopher, is just a newlywed looking for work. He is introduced to the Widow Lucinda Lucky and becomes her handyman, helping her with chores around the house. Stranger has a quiet way with people, because of his special gift. Mrs. Lucky is drawn to him immediately and the two form a bond based on their isolation (Stranger's because of his gift and people thinking he is odd, and Mrs. Lucky because of trauma she has experienced in her life).
Though the play experiments with time, beginning when a crime has already been committed, and Stranger is in jail, jumping back and forth between the time Stranger met Mrs. Lucky to scenes with his wife Nadia and his friendship with Edwin, the narrative still moves along in a forward-feeling way.
Stranger sits in a jail cell, has words with the sheriff who is both well-intentioned and corrupt, complicated in his desires, and simple in his motives. Stranger is visited by Edwin and finally by his beloved wife, and with these visits, the story of what happened to the Widow Lucky unfolds, tragically.
When the story starts, the Widow Lucky is dead, or mortally wounded, her injuries described in detail; she was beaten to death with an axe and violated. Because of this, an air of menace and trauma hangs over the whole play.
Though there are moments of levity, mostly delivered by the warm and inviting performance of Wendy Robie as the Widow Lucky, the audience is waiting for this vibrant, sad woman to die, and the young man with whom she has such an attachment, to be blamed for it.
All of the characters in this town are waiting for something, just like the audience. Stranger wants his life to be bigger. He wants to be successful like Edwin, who is slicker than snot on a glass doorknob (as my Grandma would say). Edwin wants to be respected in this small Ohio town as the savvy businessman he is, and as though he were a white businessman.
Nadia wants a family and her husband to be at home, as the center of her world, not off making predictions and having visions about other families. The Widow Lucky is lonely and she wants her life to be full, and meaningful.
Despite a few anachronistic dialog issues, this play is timely, moving, well-staged, well-directed and well-acted. Still a young playwright, Reginald Edmund is going to be one to watch and the Chicago Dramatists is the perfect place for him to hone his chops.
"Southbridge" runs through March 3 at the Chicago Dramatists Theater, 1105 W. Chicago Ave. in Chicago. For info or tickets, call 312-633-0630 or visit chicagodramatists.org.