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Theatre in Review: Mirrors (Parity Productions/Next Door at NYTW)

Joyia D. Bradley, Suzanne Darrell. Photo: John Quilty.

In Mirrors, playwright Azure D. Osborne-Lee takes us where few, if any, playwrights have gone before, into the milieu of lesbians living in the American South -- specifically, Mississippi in 1960. As you might imagine, it's a time and place marked by secrecy, denigration, and outright peril. As the play begins, the mirrors of the title are being covered up by the markedly butch Bird Wilson, making a gesture of mourning following the death of Belle Pierson, her former lover. Bird and Belle have long been estranged, so it's a little surprising that Bird has custody of Alma Jean, Belle's adolescent daughter. Belle left no other survivors, but Alma Jean is, understandably, confused to find herself under Bird's care.

It's an arrangement that immediately becomes an armed truce. Alma Jean is disoriented by the changes wrought by the death of her mother -- about whom she has distinctly ambivalent feelings -- and is ill at ease with Bird, who dresses in men's clothes and earns a living as a metalworker. The girl knows nothing about her mother's relationship with Bird, which is presented to her as that of unusually close friends from school (so close, in fact, that they shared a home for years). And Bird keeps blocking Alma Jean's plans to meet up with her slightly older boyfriend, Ray, an auto mechanic. Why, Alma Jean wonders, is Bird acting more like a mother than did the neglectful Belle?

The action of Mirrors unfolds over a couple of days, as preparations are made for Belle's wake -- a disaster, as it turns out -- and funeral. Bird tries to forge some kind of alliance with Alma Jean while putting off Louise, her neighbor and sort-of girlfriend, and dealing with catty church ladies who come calling bearing food and oozing false sympathy. Meanwhile, Belle takes the stage in a series of flashbacks, the most important of which recounts an assault on Bird by a group of local men. It goes a long way toward explaining why Alma Jean is now living in Bird's house.

Osborne-Lee lays down the bones of a solid drama, but this first-time playwright makes a number of rookie errors. For example, he keeps harping on the characters' precarious position in the community -- a point that is glaringly obvious -- using up time that would be better spent fleshing out the characters and their relationships. Bird and Belle are a notably mismatched pair: Belle spends her nights running around roadhouses while Bird sits at home, simmering, leaving one wondering what they see in each other. Also, the mutual decision they make regarding Alma Jean makes little sense, since Belle has no interest in being a mother. An object of physical and psychological abuse, Bird refuses to leave town for a friendlier environment, but we never hear about any family connections or friends keeping her there. (Belle similarly seems to exist in a vacuum.) And Bird's relationship with Louise is fuzzily rendered: It's unclear if they used to be together, are currently together, or are hoping to get together.

The play is structured as a series of brief scenes that don't really build dramatically, and Ludovica Villar-Hauser's pokey direction doesn't work up much tension. The best thing about the production is Suzanne Darrell as Bird: Gifted with strong presence and the ability to shift the mood onstage with a quarter-turn of the head, she provides the drama with a much-needed anchor. Joyia D. Bradley is such a warm and appealing presence as Louise that one can't help rooting for her and Bird to settle down with each other. As Ray, who is sweet as pie and not to be trusted, Anthony Goss has a nice way of laying down a veiled threat while remaining perfectly polite. Ashley Noel Jones and Kayland Jordan are hamstrung by one-note roles as Alma Jean and Belle, respectively, but AnJu Hyppolite and Natalie Jacobs make a perfect pair of harpies as those snoopy "Christian" matrons.

Nicole Larson's set, depicting the cluttered interior of Bird's house, looks and feels right; it is lit with taste and skill by Miriam Nilofa Crowe. Sabrina Bianca Guillaume's costume design suggests she was hemmed in a bit by budget constraints, but she manages to suggest the play's time frames. Twi McCallum's sound design delivers the many voiceover sequences, most of them involving phone calls that link the scenes.

Most crucially, Mirrors never really illuminates Bird's peculiar position in her community, which involves hiding in plain sight. (Every time she frets about being found out, you want to say, Honey, that boat has sailed.) Of course, innumerable gays and lesbians have lived like this, and, in most cases, their stories are waiting to be told. Mirrors is a brave try, by a writer who, at the moment, has more ambition than skill. But it's early days for Osborne-Lee, and perhaps this production will be a learning experience. --David Barbour

(3 March 2020)

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