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Theatre in Review: Since Africa (Red Fern Theatre/14th Street Y)

Jennifer Dorr White, Kristin D. Carpenter. Photo: Jenny Anderson

In Since Africa, Mia McCullough takes on a challenging subject, focusing on one of the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan as he tries to adapt to a new and completely foreign life in Chicago. She then adds to her challenges by building a network of American characters around him, each with his or her own dreams and conflicts. It makes for a very crowded two-and-a-half hours, and it's not always clear which aspects of Since Africa matter most to the playwright.

Ater Dhal -- Americans have a habit of calling him Arthur -- escaped from Sudan, having survived unimaginable horrors -- among other things, he had to leave his dying brother behind, being too weak to carry him to safety -- and has landed in a group home in Chicago. He is fairly certain that most of his family has been killed, and he sees life in the States as the only way forward. When we first meet him, he is facing an uphill climb. Processed American food makes him sick, he has many difficulties with idiomatic English, and a simple tool such as a can opener leaves him perplexed. Speaking of his flight to the US, he says, "I did not believe that something so big could leave the ground."

Providing assistance is Diane MacIntyre, a wealthy ladies-who-lunch type whose main connection with Africa has to do with the South African safaris she has taken with her husband. Unfortunately, he dropped dead on their last African trip, and she has returned home with an urn filled with his ashes and no idea what to do next. In some respects, Diane is eager to get on with her life, having put the house she shared with her husband on the market. In others, she seems stuck; for example, she can't bring herself to make a decision about the disposition of that urn. In all of these things, she is opposed by her college-age daughter, Eve, who thinks her father's memory is being untimely erased. Eve is particularly skeptical of Diane's volunteer work, commenting, "It's just a little comical that you think you're going to teach survival skills to someone who probably trekked hundreds of miles, barefoot, through the African wilderness, in the middle of a civil war, twice, by the time he was eight years old." Diane also spars with Deacon Hudson, from the local Catholic parish, which is sponsoring Ater. Diane and Deacon Hudson are a case of hate at first sight, especially when he tells her, "I think, perhaps, Mrs. MacIntyre, that you are merely disappointed that Ater isn't the noble savage you thought he would be."

Since Africa traces Ater's slow progress as he moves into the job market and struggles to adapt to American mores. At the same time, the play gives equal weight to the others and their problems, drawing comparisons between them and Ater. Sometimes, this produces interesting results: Diane and Eve are fond of spilling all to their mutual therapist, but when Ater consults him, the doctor's verdict is that he "does not have the luxury" of being in touch with his pain. Other instances -- for example, when Eve's new tattoo is compared to the ceremonial scars on Ater's forehead -- seem like a bit of a stretch, and borderline patronizing, to boot. Eve also has a scar on her arm, the provenance of which is revealed in a long monologue about a bizarre incident in her childhood; its relevance to the rest of Since Africa continues to elude my grasp.

Then again, there is no subject that doesn't capture McCullough's attention. These include Diane's midlife crisis; Deacon Hudson's desire to visit Africa, his attempt at tracing his ancestry through DNA tests, and his reluctance to take an African name; and Diane's duels over religion with Deacon Hudson. All of this these things are more or less interesting, or would be if McCullough had arranged them all into a more dramatic pattern. As it is, Since Africa tends to wander into any available blind alley, sometimes obscuring the real drama of Ater's alienation; as a result, even an eleventh-hour revelation about his family doesn't have all that much impact.

Nancy Robillard's production is good in its more intimate moments: Diane's arguments with Eve and with Deacon Hudson generally crackle, and her scenes with Ater often have a nice offhand charm. The director can't do much with McCullough's unhappiest invention, a native African dancer known as the Nameless One (Kristen D. Carpenter), who stalks through the scenes, behaving just as you might expect an intrusive symbol to behave. Still, Matthew Murumba captures Ater's wonderment at his new life as well as his buried trauma. Jennifer Dorr White is first-rate as Diane, who is so used to being capable that she has no idea what do with her life. Elton Beckett is solid as Deacon Hudson, and Jenny Vallancourt keeps Eve, who could be a real pain, on the right side of irritating.

The production is on the bare-bones side, with Robert Monaco's set depicting Ater's apartment, Sam Gordon's lighting, and Ian Wehrle's sound design all getting the job done, if only just. (This is probably more a comment on the production's budget than any of these designers' talents.) Much better are Sarah J. Holden's costumes, drawing telling differences between the way Diane and Eve dress and capturing Ater's uneasy transition into hip-hop-inspired wear.

Since Africa was nominated for a Joseph Jefferson Award in Chicago, and one can see why the awards-giving body was eager to applaud McCullough's ambition. Since Africa is filled with good things, but it's easy to wish that she had focused more on making them into drama. -- David Barbour

(26 February 2014)

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