December 5, 2018

Ownership of a House is Challenged in “The Luck of the Irish”; Theatre Intime Presents Drama About Racial Tensions, Two Eras

By Donald H. Sanborn III

In The Luck of the Irish, an African American woman discovers that a transaction, necessitated by racial injustice, may prevent her from owning the house she has inherited from her grandparents. Written by Kirsten Greenidge, this play derives its central conflict from the determination of parents to provide a space — and a future — in which their children belong.

Hannah and Rich are raising their son, Miles, in a suburb on the outskirts of Boston in the early 2000s. Hannah discovers that in the late 1950s, her house was procured by her grandparents, Dr. Rex Taylor and his wife Lucy, through a procedure known as “ghost buying.” Because at that time African Americans could not purchase a home unless their name was not on the title, the Taylors hired a struggling Irish couple, Joe and Patty Ann Donovan, to be their “ghosts.”

A Boston native, Greenidge intended the play to be about her own late grandmother. “I began to explore not only my grandparents’ move from the black South End to the suburbs, but also the ambiguousness of being “other” in a town that your people have called home for over half a century,” Greenidge writes in a program note for the Huntington Theatre Company, which gave the play its 2012 premiere.

Upon learning that the Taylors have died, Joe informs Hannah about the arrangement, and that Patty Ann contends that the house now belongs to the Donovans. The mild-mannered Joe is sympathetic to Hannah’s family; Patty Ann, however, is bitter about the fact that the Taylors’ children, and not her own, were able to grow up in the house, which she does not believe they deserved.

There are additional complications. Although Hannah is determined to keep the house, her younger sister Nessa, who is struggling to pay her student loans, urges her to sell it. Miles, who is in fourth grade, has committed infractions, including biting, that have made him unwelcome at his school. This situation eventually strains Hannah’s relationship with Rich.

Greenidge’s poignant script deftly juxtaposes the 1950s against the 2000s, permitting the audience to observe the similarities between the problems faced by Lucy and Hannah. There are elements that link the two eras, such as a jar of buttons.

Reviews of previous productions have observed that the plot question of whose name is on the title should be fairly simple to resolve through perusal of the deed. On a character level, however, this is beside the point. The focus is on Hannah’s overarching sense that she lacks a place where she — and her son — belongs. “We’re still the only flies in the buttermilk up around here,” she laments to Nessa.

The New Play Exchange website notes that in 2009 there was a reading of The Luck of the Irish at McCarter Theatre. The show returns to Princeton through Theatre Intime, whose cast and production team consist of Princeton University students.

“At its core, The Luck of the Irish is about race, class, ownership, and the anxiety of being pushed out of spaces in which you belong,” the director, Princeton junior Chamari White-Mink, observes in a statement. The production illustrates, through judicious use of onstage space, the extent to which it is possible to be an outsider in one’s own home.

Ashley Roundtree is outstanding as Lucy, infusing the character with poise as well as inner strength that is subtle but ever-present. Alyia Ismagilova is equally impressive as the bitter, aggressive Mrs. Donovan. Danielle Stephenson is introspective as Hannah; this portrayal is complemented by Brooke Johnson’s performance as the feisty Nessa.

Nate Osemeha is bracing as Rich, and Zhamoyani McMillan brings dignified reserve to the role of Rex. The cast is ably rounded out by Jean Luo and Carol Lee as offstage voices, and by Jaren McKinnie as Miles.

TJ Smith, a female performer, has been cast as Joe. Smith is skillful in the role, careful to deliver a performance that is consistent with Sean Toland’s portrayal of the older Mr. Donovan. Both actors highlight the character’s temperate, agreeable nature, making him what he needs to be: a contrast to Patty Ann’s combativeness.

However, inconsistent use of gender-blind casting, for one of two versions of a character, makes it somewhat puzzling. Certainly Joe is more open to a change in social paradigms than is Patty Ann, who repeatedly insists, “There is an order to things.” Casting could be effective in illustrating this, but it might have been clearer had a female actor been cast as the older Mr. Donovan as well.

The performances by these student actors make the characters distinctive and relatable. However, many cast members need to pay consistent attention to diction and projection; some of the dialogue was difficult to hear.

Where the production excels is in astute use of the space. In a press release, White-Mink observes that the play “puts black people, particularly, black women, at the center of the narrative.” Ironically, the staging accomplishes this by placing much of the action, particularly many of Hannah’s scenes, off-center.

In this the director is aided by Ricky Feig’s set, which is in three parts. To the audience’s left is a small area, which we will learn is a café. In the center is a living area that is large and spacious, though a stack of boxes, and suitably minimal furnishing, prevents it from looking comfortably inhabited.

The right hand section, which is small like the café area, is clearly a patio. It is in this area of the stage that we see the majority of the scenes involving Hannah. The house is supposed to belong to her, but she is not allowed to enter it until late in the play.  This allows a pivotal scene in which she finally is allowed to inhabit center stage — physically and metaphorically — to provide a contrast that is aesthetically and emotionally satisfying.

Although the action moves back and forth between the 1950s and the 2000s, the set also acts as a timeline to guide the audience. Most of the scenes in the past take place in the first two sections, while the contemporary segments are set in the patio. We see events from the past transpire as characters from the present discuss them.

A tense scene between Lucy and Patty Ann is set in the café, and an equally edgy moment between Hannah and Patty Ann occurs on the patio. This permits the audience to observe how much Patty Ann does or does not grow as a person in between those two encounters.

Lydia Gompper’s costumes contrast Rex’s impeccable jacket and vest with Rich’s casual t-shirt. Joe’s sweater shares a color scheme — containing white and orange — with Lucy’s outfit, which illustrates an understanding between those two characters. Gompper dresses both Lucy and Hannah in a floral outfit, providing a nice link between two protagonists separated by five decades.

The Luck of the Irish is a worthy, expressive play for which director White-Mink has a strong affinity, and this is evident onstage. Some of the dialogue needs to be more audible. Also, the pacing could be tighter, particularly in the early part of the second act. Overall, however, Theatre Intime delivers a production that is thoughtful and deeply moving.