Story: Physicist Martin Townsend and his wife Kate, transplanted Iowans, arrive in Detroit in 1967 for a job Martin has taken at a local university. Looking for a place to live, they are put in contact with realtor Sol Rifkin, who shows them a beautiful and stately, two-story home in his own urban neighborhood, Palmer Park. The Townsends are stunned at the relatively low cost of the house until Sol explains that the race riots in Detroit have spurred many white families to flee their upper-middle-class enclave for the suburbs.
In consort with their new neighbors, black pediatrician Fletcher Hazelton and his wife Linda, as well as Sol and his wife Harriet and two other neighborhood couples, one white and one black, the Townsends and their friends mount a spirited and determined campaign to keep Palmer Park both integrated and stable, including the public elementary school attended by their children. Their efforts pay off with some initial success but the jubilation is short-lived when adversity strikes them from widely different and unexpected corners.
Highlights: Canadian playwright Joanna McClelland Glass has enjoyed a long and illustrious career, winning multiple awards and seeing her works produced frequently throughout the United States and Canada. Glass and her husband actually lived in Palmer Park at the time in which her play is set, bringing considerable credibility to her dramatization of a real-life situation. Originally premiered at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario in 2008, Glass’ two-act drama is being presented at the Missouri History Museum by St. Louis Actors’ Studio in collaboration with the Black Rep and its founder and producing director, Ron Himes.
Other Info: Glass attempts to recreate the idealism of her youth and that of several well-intentioned neighbors in her drama, but it suffers badly from stilted dialogue and situations that seem more contrived than authentic. Actually, it would serve better as a subject for a sociology course than theater, although its second act is substantially better than the painfully awkward first.
What’s most sobering and alarming are Glass’ program notes, where she writes that “the quality of American elementary schools can be determined by zip codes” and that the United States now ranks 14th out of 34 in international education rankings released by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. A look at the situation in the St. Louis metropolitan area, where two school districts presently are unaccredited, verifies those dismal findings.
Glass’ effort succeeds primarily in painting a realistic portrait of how racial and socio-economic divisions continue to strangle the American ideal of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That stark assessment is more important than the artificial elements of her dialogue and script.
Director Himes has assembled a fine cast that does what it can with the often hokey conversations. Reginald Pierre and Jeanitta Perkins play the upwardly mobile Hazeltons, who are forced to dress up when taking road trips in order to be served at roadside diners. Chad Morris brings some Midwestern friendliness to Martin Townsend, while Rachel Hanks fills Kate with Midwestern practicality that can seem harsh.
Tom Wethington is earnest as the good-will realtor Sol and Laura Coppinger conveys determination for justice as his crusading wife Harriet. Philip Dixon and Candice Jackson play an upper-middle-class black couple who are all too aware of the fragility of the local public school, while Aaron Orion Baker and Emily Baker are a local white merchant and his plain-speaking wife.
Set and lighting designer Patrick Huber shrewdly utilizes slides and photos in the background, both of individuals and some real Palmer Park homes, to set the tone and era of the drama that mesh with the handsomely appointed living room of the Hazeltons. Costume designer Jennifer ‘JC’ Krajicek adorns the players mostly in elegant togs, although Martin wears a T-shirt now and again.
Most disturbing of anything in Glass’ script or its presentation by these talented folks at the Missouri History Museum is that the problems that affected these characters more than 40 years ago are as prevalent and depressing as ever. As Glass herself remarks when commenting on America’s educational crisis, “Something is disastrously wrong with our national priorities.”
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Group: St. Louis Actors’ Studio/Black Rep
Venue: Lee Auditorium, Missouri History Museum
Dates: November 10, 11, 12, 13, 17, 18, 19, 20
Tickets: $10-$25; contact 746-4599 or mohistory.org