Playwright paints a picture of prejudice for Williamston premiere
WILLIAMSTON, Mich. –Who does prejudice hurt most? Its victims or the perpetrator?
While most of the time we focus on the harm done to the victims, playwright Christy Hall turns the tables slightly in A Painted Window, a new play premiering at Williamston Theatre, and explores the effects that prejudice has on the person possessing it.
Josephine, played by Ruth Crawford, is a woman who has experienced great loss and now finds herself in a situation that she’d spent a lifetime trying to avoid. She’d pursued fame and wealth, two states of being that proved temporary. She’s now living with her sister, a sister from whom she’d long been estranged and who has spent a life in simple poverty. She’s also starting to connect with a man named Charles, the building’s superintendent.
Crawford presents a highly complex character, one whom she expertly captures the subtleties of. While in many ways the script sets her up to be unsympathetic, Crawford doesn’t let us fall into condemnation easily. She makes it difficult to dislike this woman, no matter how snobbish or casually cruel she can be. She develops many layers to her and as Josephine becomes more self-aware, Crawford makes her more and more sympathetic to the audience.
Dominque Lowell plays the younger sister, Sylvia, a woman who is outwardly simple and uneducated, but who has unexpected depth and wisdom. Lowell provides a great contrast between her character and Crawford’s. She makes good use of speech patterns and movement to establish herself as belonging to a different social class than her sister.
Charles, played by Lynch Travis, is the balance we need between the sisters. He shows us the kind of life that Sylvia extols. Travis creates a character who is open, gentle, caring and compassionate. He brings a careful balance to Charles—showing that his actions are authentic in their kindness even as there is a growing attraction between him and Josephine.
Frannie Shepherd-Bates directs this show and she makes the transitions between time periods flow easily and clearly. The play switches between time periods, a few weeks apart. She places her actors expertly, especially in the scenes between Charles and Josephine, where Sylvia hangs in the background, a quiet presence that is non-intrusive, yet a quiet part of the scene. It is both symbolic and physical.
The ending is a challenging one. It’s certainly the one that the playwright foreshadows throughout the play. In many ways, she prepares you for it even as you want to avoid it. You want to hope that Josephine’s growth throughout the show will help her avoid the inevitable, to break her past patterns. Whether she does or not is something you will have to watch the play to discover.
Don’t, however, go expecting a play that is merely warm and fuzzy, a play about sisters reconnecting and healing a lifetime’s worth of hurt. Instead, be prepared to examine what kinds of things separate us from each other, keep us from enjoying the love we might otherwise have.
Hall challenges societal assumptions that wealth and status are really the solutions we make them out to be. She forces the audience to question which life is richer—one that is full of wealth and social status or one that is financially poor but rich in relations and connections to others.
Elspeth Williams creates a crowded set, one framed by industrial pipes and the window referred to in the title. It helps crowd the characters together, creating a stifling environment where they are forced to be with each other, unable to escape the confines of the sixth-floor walk-up rent controlled apartment in Harlem.
Jason Painter Price’s sound design also helps both set the play in its location and help move the play back and forth in time. Perhaps a minor complaint is that in a scene where the outside ambiance suddenly intrudes, it eventually fades away for no good reason. It may cause less of a distraction to the scene, but it didn’t make sense for what had physically happened in the scene.
Like most premieres at Williamston, this play provides opportunity for the playwright to fully realize her vision. From the director to the actors to the technicians, everyone has committed to giving this play the chance to tell its story, to ask its questions, and to present fully formed connections between characters.
It is a heart-rending story to watch, but it does lay out choices and challenge its audience to evaluate their own dreams and where those dreams might take them.