A Southern Fable

Southern Gothic reigns in The Hanging of Razor Brown, a sluggish play about racial prejudice that resifts well-tilled soil. In a program note, dramatist Le Wilhelm tells us that "I really had not a good concept of what race prejudice was" when he grew up. It wasn't until the late 70s and 80s that he got an inkling of it, he adds, from a sign in 1980 that said, "No Coloreds after Sunset," and from an encounter with a paternalistic Southern woman in Florida. "I witnessed it firsthand," he says, but the play feels resolutely secondhand. Death hovers over the characters, who mingle during one afternoon in 1923 in front of a boarded-up crypt and a sarcophagus, shaded by hanging cypress. They have come to a cemetery knoll to see the hanging of the title character, and they are as repressed, morbid, and familiar as their more famous types from sources such as William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman of The Little Foxes, and the film Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

For faded gentility à la Amanda Wingfield, there's a prim schoolmistress, Genevieve Lecompte (Tracy Newirth, in one of the roles that is double cast), who teaches her three teenage students French by reading Racine's Phèdre. A note of genteel, hand-on-the-throat hypocrisy is pretty much all Newirth is given to play, and it quickly turns tiresome.

Two people have their eyes on her. One is the portly, depraved Matthew Devereaux, whose ancestors occupy the crypt and sarcophagus. In the part, Jon Oak does nicely in a toned-down dry run for the corrupt Boss Finley in Sweet Bird of Youth. The other is Robert Price (Nick Giello), a glib and handsome survivor of the Great War whose best friend is a bottle. Unfortunately, in playing someone in an alcoholic stupor Giello doesn't bring enough energy to essentially a one-note part. (It would be nice to see him as Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or as Chance Wayne, the seedy Adonis, in Sweet Bird.) Genevieve, who gives herself airs, scorns both of them as beneath her.

Gradually the town's corruption reveals itself in the history of the community and in the adults' moral lethargy. Devereaux's father was a pedophile who pursued young men. Significantly, Devereaux says, those boys were paid off and have become "the leading citizens of this community," suggesting the depth of the town's tolerance of its leading citizens' depravity.

Genevieve instructs her girls that the queen Phèdre (who loved her stepson) can't be judged "because we are not her equals. We cannot understand her position." Even when evidence is discovered that absolves Razor Brown, a black man who was convicted of stealing a horse and who worked for Genevieve, she forbids her charges to lift a finger. Yet Wilhelm has sympathy for the characters, who are all in some sense trapped by their social and biological roles.

Director Merry Beamer lets some scenes go on too long—reading Racine and a watermelon-spitting contest—but the bigger problem is the characters. Neither Genevieve nor Price is sympathetic, even if they are trapped into "living a lie." It's left to Anastasia Morsucci as Razor's wife, Clara, to jolt the drama to an intensity befitting the life-or-death situation. The actresses playing the young girls are also fine, and Erin Singleton as the youngest brings not only angelic looks but a winsomeness and backbone to the role. The period is superbly evoked by Cynthia Winstead's 20s outfits in summery fabrics with matching hats.

For a dramatist who wants to write about race prejudice because he felt it firsthand, Wilhelm undercuts his own intentions late in the play. One character pointedly announces that the day is Feb. 29, 1923, a leap year day that never existed. The story, then, is a fable, and ultimately it's more exasperating than enlightening.

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