I don’t want to say much about Don’t Go Gentle by Stephen Belber because I think it’s very nearly sensational and the plot is too brief and too slender to summarize without giant spoilers. Which is to say, the 90 minute, intermissionless drama is very character driven and the plot turn at the center is essentially a development that affects all the relationships; even to anticipate the development is to deprive you of the surprise of the development itself.
So to the extent that I’ll allow myself to say the play is about anything, it’s about Lawrence (Michael Cristofer) a retired judge working now out of his Buffalo home as a pro bono lawyer to rectify what system injustices he can—in part because a bout with so-far benign cancer has made him very aware of his mortality. Currently he’s taken on the case of a young African American mother, Tanya (Angela Lewis), charged with a greater crime than that for which she is guilty (the mere technicality offends Lawrence’s sense of the law)—and being convicted will make it impossible for her to care for her teenage son, Rasheed (Max Brawer). Lawrence himself is a (widowed) father with two adult children: an accomplished, secure school teacher Amelia (Jennifer Mudge) and a son who has led a somewhat less stable existence, Ben (David Wilson Barnes). The familial relationship is thus…complicated. In Don’t Go Gentle, the line between Lawrence’s altruism and his family responsibility blurs.
The dialogue is wonderful, avoiding all clichés and expected tropes even though there’s a certain amount of archetype in the general character profiles. How does he do it? By giving each character a limited and unique self-awareness and irony. These are all informed folks very much living in the New Millennium, and to that extent they’re analytically minded enough to understand a few things about the difference between intent and perception. This makes the exchanges and characterization very rich.
The direction by Lucie Tiberghien is both powerful and nuanced and, except for transitional effects, almost completely invisible, save that she has cast her play brilliantly and guided her actors to bring their most vibrant A-game. There are none who aren’t remarkable, but it is perhaps Michael Cristofer at the heart who is the most notable among equals because he carries more levels of complexity. Periodically one modern role or other will be compared to an iconic Shakespeare role, often glibly, but in a number of ways, the character of Lawrence really is a kind of Lear for 21st Century America. For a play so compact, the part leaves a massive impression. At least it did on me.
At the top of this review I said that the play was “very nearly” sensational and that degree of separation has to do with a sense of deliberate ambiguity that informs both the end of the play and the audience reaction to it. But my significant other and I debated the meaning of the ambiguity—and what each of us fely about the play—spiritedly all the way home.
And how many new American dramas have the substance and artistry to trigger that…?
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