Tree at Victory Gardens Theater | Theater review
The roots don’t go deep in Julie Hébert’s sluggish family drama.
Hébert’s chronicle of a white Louisiana woman who, reeling from her father’s death, travels to Chicago to meet the African-American woman with whom he bore a child during Jim Crow is dull and dubious in equal measure. For once the L.A.–based playwright has set up the racially and emotionally charged circumstances, she lets the drama go slack: “I don’t have a plan,” Didi announces to her newly discovered half-brother Leo early on. The goals of her visit indeed appear benign—to forge bonds, to procure old love letters. Still, the rhetoric mounts as if the stakes were world domination. “I want to feel my knuckles against your teeth,” Leo growls at Didi hours into their first encounter. Throughout, Hébert uses the fraught sociopolitical backdrop to justify emotional peaks the uneventful script doesn’t earn.
Dymond’s production has both strengths and weaknesses. Williams and Sheppard bring raw energy and comic timing to the roles of Leo’s mother, Jessalyn, and daughter, JJ. Rivkin, however, struggles as Didi, seeming ill-at-ease even as Didi settles into her surroundings, and emotionally bottled up even when Didi blows her top. Jacqueline and Rick Penrod’s busy set design (a house that transforms in its upper tiers into a tree) meanwhile clusters the action in pockets of the stage, inhibiting movement and contributing little narrative momentum. Even the evening’s strongest moments (which stem from the Alzheimer’s-afflicted Jessalyn’s sporadic moments of lucidity) can’t compensate for a script that seems to have settled on a tone—moral seriousness—and assumed the drama would inevitably ensue.