Penny for Her Thoughts (Or Sometimes, More)

Brooklyn’s Gallery Players have long held a reputation for producing some of the finest productions at any level of New York theater. Recent stagings have included Like You Like It, Once On This Island, The Who’s Tommy, Urinetown, and Yank, all of which were stellar productions that supported the Players’ mission of providing the community with professional-quality theater at an affordable cost. And yet despite such a pedigree, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Players had bit off more than they could chew with their current choice of show, Caroline, or Change. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori, Caroline is easily one of the most important recent contributions to the musical theater canon. Could the Gallery Players pull off a show this profound?

The answer is a resounding yes.

Caroline is an incredibly complex show; esoteric and elliptical. Caroline may occur during a time of revolution, but it’s a show about a one-woman kind of revolution. The plot is little more than a conceit: Long-suffering Caroline Thibodeaux (Teisha Duncan), a black maid for the Jewish Gellman family, wrestles with ethical dilemmas and responsibility against the backdrop of social unrest and the burgeoning Civil Rights movement.

And yet, at the same time, Caroline, a completely sung-through, operetta-style musical, is also a very interior show. All characters undergo major internal arcs. This certainly makes for an impressive work, but not an innately expressive one. Could the Gallery Players pull off a show this profound?

Every aspect of Jeremy Gold Kronenberg’s carefully nourished production – the first revival since Caroline’s initial, Tony-winning bow – is magnificent. First and foremost, of course, is Duncan, in a perfectly modulated performance of sustained intensity, the kind of work that bears remembering at the end of the season. And she isn’t alone in that.

Set in the fall of the 1963, Caroline takes place between two households. One is that of the Gellmans, who have relocated to Lake Charles, Lousiana, following the death of the wife and the father’s subsequent remarriage to her friend, Rose Stepnick (Eileen Tepper). The show charts the distance loved ones create and then must navigate between each other. Stuart Gellman (Peter Gantenbein), a clarinetist, is largely an absentee father, leaving Rose as both the guest and disciplinarian in her own home, trying to find an impossibly delicate balance.

We are also privy to the home life of Caroline, a divorced mother just barely able to provide for her four children, including Elyse McKay Taylor as eldest daughter Emmie. As perfectly articulated by Duncan, the 39-year-old Caroline’s life is barely above that of a prisoner, and with every upward glance and movement, the actress shows how riddled her character is with regret, both of choices made and of those which have never been made available to her.

What unites these two fronts is Caroline’s relationship with young Noah Gellman (Daniel Henri Luttway, a natural in a major role here), silently mourning the death of his mother and the recent upheaval in his family. Largely to her unwelcoming chagrin, Noah bonds with Caroline, even lighting her daily cigarette (Noah’s mother died of lung cancer).

Mostly to teach Noah a lesson but also to stave off personal guilt, Rose creates an intriguing form of punishment. She instructs Caroline to keep whatever change Noah leaves in his clothing when she does his laundry. Despite Rose’s unknowing condescension, and even though she does not want to take money away from a child, it actually makes a difference, and Caroline takes what she finds home.

This arrangement cannot abide forever, but Caroline is far too measured a show for Kushner and Tesori to let it erupt in a melodramatic way. Rather, the effects take hold in smaller, more humane ways that allow Luttway, Taylor and Teppe to shine, particularly when members of the Gellman and Thibodeaux households come together. Gael Schaefer, Bill Weeden, John Weigand make the most of their small roles as the grandparents; after a minimal amount of stage time they all feel intimately familiar.

Kronenberg’s entire ensemble is exemplary, and certain actors warrant special praise for illuminating portrayals of the household objects that have become some of Caroline’s truest companions. Marcie Henderson is wonderful as The Washing Machine, and Frank Viveros s terrific as both The Dryer and The Bus. Heather Davis, Markeisha Ensley, and Nikki Stephenson conjure the spirit of Supremes-esque ‘60s girl as The Radio. And I’d be lying if I said I was ever anything less than bewitched by Gisela Adisa as The Moon. (Bravo to Edward T. Morris’ set design, which allows the show’s action to move fluidly.)

The “change” of the title is both literal and metaphorical. For Caroline, there isn’t enough of it, and it can’t come fast enough, a sentiment echoed in Duncan's aching eleventh-hour number, "Lot's Wife." Caroline, though, is a show about the journey rather than any particular destination. And in the hands of Gallery Players, there is no greater chauffeur.

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