White Picket Fence is a show that's built for failure. For starters, it's a dramedy about race relations in which the principal characters are two 8-year-old boys played by grown men. In its premier production, the play is being co-produced by competing theater companies, a tricky proposition for which there's no local precedent. Finally, White Picket Fence is a simple story that's competing for ticket sales with pyrotechnical musical monsters like Rent and big-name crowd-pleasers like Tony and Tina's Wedding.
All that makes the artistic and commercial success of White Picket Fence even more gratifying--both for the companies that have risked producing it (Actors Theatre of Phoenix and Black Theatre Troupe) and for anyone fortunate enough to see this enormously entertaining piece of theater. Playwright/actor Michael Grady has consistently turned out edgy, provocative plays about interesting subjects; this time, he's found something new to say about race discrimination, and he's doing it with a first-rate cast and more-than-credible staging.
Set in December of 1968, White Picket Fence ponders prejudice from the point of view of two young boys. The kids, one black and one white, are obsessed with the launch of Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon, while their folks--one black couple, one white--are learning to live alongside one another in a previously all-white Midwestern suburb. Grady uses Armstrong's "giant leap for mankind" as a yardstick to measure the struggle of "one small step" away from the bigotry the boys' parents are trying to wrestle to the ground.
The story relies elsewhere on more subtle metaphors and situations. The black kid is welcomed rather than reviled on his first day of school, but only because the other boys all want to be the first to have a "colored friend"; a white woman who's trying to befriend her black neighbor uses phrases like "your people" and "cultural traditions" to illustrate a privileged person's self-consciousness about race.
Grady writes brilliant speeches and believable characters, but snaky plot twists are his strong suit. Normally, when a playwright shows us a gun and then later reveals that one of the characters will die before the story ends, it's a safe bet that someone's going to get killed onstage. But Grady's always teasing us with possibilities, setting up scenarios that look obvious but turn out in less plausible and more thought-provoking ways. Having seen many of Grady's plays, I decided that the least likely character in White Picket Fence would be the one slain in Act Two with the revolver from Act One. As it turns out, the gun and expected death refreshingly fail to follow a predictable course of cause and effect.
Director Andrew Traister brings a surprising amount of action to Grady's dialogue-driven script, which is confined mostly to the living rooms of the two families. And if the cast Traister has assembled for this production is any indication, actors must line up for blocks to read for one of Grady's plays. Linda DeArmond tackles quick comedy and tense monologues as Barbara, a woman who jokes about married sex in one scene and berates her husband for spouting racist rhetoric in the next. Ken Love is brilliant as a black man determined to "rise above," particularly in a difficult scene in which he threatens a yardful of thugs with a violent mockery of African-American stereotypes. I was even able to overlook, after a point, that the two leads (Michael Traylor and Mark DeMichele, both excellent in their scenes as adults) were 30somethings who were made to play little boys about half the time--a theatrical conceit that I loathe.
Grady intended his play to be performed by only six actors; he's savvy enough to know that a show that requires the services of two talented child actors will rarely get produced, and that a pair of cute tykes on stage would yank our attention away from his carefully constructed story. (ATP's artistic director Matthew Wiener admits that he wouldn't have produced White Picket Fence if he'd had to "find two kids who could carry a two-act.") Grady uses the simple language of children to remind us that prejudice is something we learn, and points to the stupidness of our recent past to show how things have changed regarding race relations.
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Despite such hopefulness, this isn't a white man's summary of racism. Grady, who's white, doesn't pull any punches about the privileges of white men in America, and the play's gritty, cynical ending presents racism as an unresolved issue rather than an episode of history--like lunar landings--that we're past.
White Picket Fence isn't without its flaws--Grady needs a new, sturdier end of Act One, and some of his children's speeches contain words kids seldom use--but this is the closest thing to perfect theater I've seen all season.
I doubt that the success of this show will start a trend in cooperative productions or a wealth of worthy new plays by local playwrights. Grady always creates unusually solid theater, and two companies presenting his new play probably means that more than one company wanted it. But in a business fueled by ticket sales, it's heartening to see a couple of competitors join forces to produce a play about race relations when either could have simply staged another moneymaking musical.
White Picket Fence continues through Sunday, February 8, in Stage West at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe. For more information, see the Performance listing in Thrills.