Encore Michigan

‘In Common’ takes on racism and misogyny in modern America at Purple Rose

Review May 22, 2023 David Kiley

CHELSEA, MI–There is an optimistic theory amidst the socio-political racism landfill we are living in nowadays that if we could only just learn “to get along,” we’d all be a lot happier and safer.

While that is true, we all know the world, and the U.S., are a lot more complicated than that. I’d like to say that if Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Antonin Scalia could remain close friends, then the rest of us should be able to work it out. Again, our world is more complicated than that it seems.

In In Common, a new play making its premiere by playwright Quinn D. Eli, presented now at The Purple Rose Theatre here, the writer pulls off a kind of two-for-one story that shows how people of color and women, white women in particular, should probably form a coalition to take power back from the white-male hierarchy.

Melanie (Caitlin Cavannaugh) is haunted by a voice that won’t leave her head. Call it a ghost of her friend Cyrus (Dez Walker), a hallucination, or clear evidence of a mental collapse. Either way, it’s a lingering reminder of a friend who was killed years ago; the friend was black, Melanie is white, and questions about why it happened – and who was to blame – come newly into focus when Melanie is drawn into a relationship that offers her a brighter future, but no clear escape from the past.

Melanie’s boyfriend, Hal, played by Rusty Mewha, is reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s Sherman McCoy in “Bonfire of the Vanities,” a wealthy, privileged, charming, super-fit, controlling, self-entitled creature. Melanie, having been deprived of the love of her life in Cyrus, who still is haunting her days and with whom she has her most meaningful conversations, has retreated into the arms of a man who will take care of her and make life “easier.” Or she likes to think.

Rachel Keown plays Blair, who is engaged to marry Vivian (Olivia Miller). And Vivian is the ex-girlfriend of Hal, who also has an unseen ex-wife who is in the picture. All of these women are connected to Hal, and there is a web of baggage, experience, relationships and mistrust that binds them to him. It’s a neat trick convincing us that a lesbian couple could subjugate themselves in any way to Hal, but Eli and the actors pull it off. Maybe it’s not surprising that Keown, as Blair, the half of the couple that is unreservedly gay, is the portal of resolution for the other women in the story.

The dialogue among the friends and lovers is authentically written. The complex relationships are a bit reminiscent of Woody Allen’s later screenplays. But Eli does an even better job of making the characters more real. People we actually know.

While America is divided on political, racial, income, social and religious grounds, with each election seemingly tipping the balance between freedom and oppression by the state, Eli tries to simplify it. But for some fringe female and BIPOC players in the weekly Twitter drama of oppressive American politics trying to define and restrict people to a set of white Christian norms, the chief council of this right-wing brigade is made up of people who are white, male and addicted to controlling others.

Eli’s talent in his storytelling is getting you to think about all that in a story about five people.

Cavannaugh nails her character who thoroughly modern, neurotic but sharply self-aware and vulnerabe all at once. Walker is a delight, perfectly embodying a ghostly, knowing, muse who maintains his sarcasm and sense of humor even in death.

Directed very ably by Rhiannon Ragland, In Common is especially timely because while there is a thread of a race theme in how Cyrus was treated when he met his demise, the playwright does an excellent job of going deeper and linking racism with misogyny to the nasty nest where both social vipers live—white male privilege. Indeed, that Cyrus stays with Melanie long after he is killed is a testament to the uselessness of violence toward people who don’t approve of for your own screwed up reasons.

In Common is a superior script that taps into huge issues confronting society today–not by hitting the audience over the head, but in a very digestible portion that hopefully stirs a lot of conversation at the pub after the show or on the drive home. The issues are with us at home, at work and in every community and often in the same home among loved ones.

The set design, by Sara Pearline, is Mealnie’s somewhat spare and modern apartment. Costumes by Shelby Newport. Lighting by Stephen Sakowski and Dana L. White. Props by Danna Seagrest. Sound by Matthew Tibbs.

In Common plays through June 3.