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'White Picket Fence' divides innocence and hardened prejudice

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MONDAY, MAY 11, 1998




'White Picket Fence' divides innocence and hardened prejudice



"Hi," says 8-year-old Dwight Tatum, who has just knocked at the door of his new neighbors’ house.

“You’re black,” says 8-year-old David Bell.

“I know,” says Dwight.

“C’mon in,” says David.

. So begins an innocent friendship in Michael Grady’s play “White Picket Fence,” which made its Midwest premiere at Performance Network this weekend and continues there through May 31.

The boys’ friendship, however, remains etched in the past tense. In a scene with the present-day Dwight and David, now in their 30s, each tells us of a recent, wordless encounter so charged with fear, suspicion and anger that these onetime best friends never recognized each other.

Hindsight lends deep texture to Grady's play, set mostly in 1968-’69, a flashpoint period in American history. Long before Rodney King would ask whether we couldn’t all just get along, the same question hangs in the air between the families of two neighboring suburban homes - and the answer seems unassailable as Mount Everest.

As the Civil Rights movement’s focus shifted from legal Southern segregation to the de facto segregation and animoisity of northern neighborhoods and schools, the “not in my back yard” syndrome bloomed, and radicals on both sides began to hold sway. This means nothing to young David and Dwight, portrayed with immense skill as both 8-year-olds and 38-year-olds by Scott Screws and Walter L. Lindsey Jr.

Instant pals and fanatics of the Apollo space missions, they huddle watching Walter Cronkite on TV, hearing astronaut Frank Borman’s Christmas Eve message to “the good Earth,” and applying their aptitude to building a model ship of their own.

So let the parents fuss ’n’ feud, especially David’s father Sam (Jon Bennett), a semi-retired Vietnam vet, and Dwight’s overworked father Louis (Lynch R. Travis). Louis and Sam don’t even meet until the play is nearly done, although wives Estelle and Barbara (Charlotte J. Nelson and Christine Huddle) make sturdy efforts to bridge the gap. You’d swear women are from Venus and men from Mars.

Grady paints “White Picket Fence” in contrapuntal hues: Scenes unfold both past and past-present in conversations between parent and offspring. Director Johanna Broughton fine tunes these time-warp moments like a conductor pulling together a major orchestral work, imposing the right allegros and adagios upon the families' humorous and somber dealings.

Kevin Judge’s funny, functional set offers symmetrical doors, windows, couches, Christmas wreaths. The visual motif of sameness-under-the-skin hits home; so does Travis’s immense, rich performance as the weary but brave Louis.

Bennett makes a frighteningly troubled Sam, who loves his family but is dogged by Vietnam. Huddle and Nelson are often overshadowed by their domineering stage spouses, but carve out brave characters. Screws’ adult David mixes happy recollections with remorse, while Lindsey’s injection of pain onto Dwight’s face suggests this bright, happy boy may grow into a bitter, heartsick man.

The play is often provocative, as in its suggestion that blacks are naturally demonstrative and whites naturally “closed" off.” Yet Grady falters late in an all-too-easy reconciliation, triggered by haunted Santis admission of a wartime horror I can't decipher even after watching Act II twice.

Still, the show’s closing coda is a lovely reminiscence that lends hope that Neil Armstrong's “one small step” on the moon can extend all the way to one s neighbor’s house. It’s a sentiment the Ku Klux Klan and its more virulent opponents would have done well to heed in our town last weekend.

"White Picket Fence" continues at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through May 31 at Performance Network, 408 W. Washington St. Tickets are $15 general, $12 students and seniors. For details, call 663-0681.