Follow theater in New York City for even a short while and you’re bound to discover not only interesting new work but interesting new venues in which to experience it. The Invisible Dog Art Center is a former factory in the fashionable neighborhood of Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, that’s been recently converted into a raw-chic arts space. While its third floor, up two long flights of stairs, isn’t actually a theater, it is serving as one for the one-week New York premiere of a new play by Bekah Brunstetter, whose work I’ve been avidly following for some time. While the space is not ideal, Take Her to See the Maco Lights, inspired by a real North Carolina folk legend, measures up to the high standards of the playwright’s recent work and then some.
A mystically flavored two-hander about an ill-starred interracial couple in the intolerant 1950s, Maco stars Tommy Crawford (who winningly played the orderly in A.R. Gurney’s Heresy at The Flea) as rich James Jr., the romantically minded, guitar-strumming scion of a tobacco dynasty. While his North Carolina accent is half-baked at most, Mr. Crawford overcomes that limitation with a focused intensity as he woos, wins, but ultimately can’t commit to his grandfather’s black secretary.
Played with softspoken sweetness by the compelling Sarah Stephens, Mattie reluctantly lets James into her life during a series of clandestine nighttime meetings by a set of railroad tracks where, according to legend, ghostly lights signaling a 19th century train wreck still appear. These scenes pose the question: Why can Mattie see the lights, but James can’t? Is it because Mattie’s grandmother was killed in the long-ago crash? Or is Mattie just making that connection up? In any case, James’s failure to see the apparition parallels his refusal to allow the light of public knowledge to shine on the forbidden relationship. That’s what makes this modest jewel of a play a tragedy.
Mattie’s monologue about one little girl brought to the West in chains on a slave ship, and in parallel another little girl, her descendant, crystallizes the play’s theme of for-better-or-worse generational continuity. For Mattie (and for the young woman Ms. Stephens also plays in two modern-day framing scenes that further the generational theme) these family ties over time are an essential part of one’s character. For James, on the other hand, those same ties, freighted with society’s racist attitudes, are precisely what deny him his heart’s desire, and Mattie hers in the bargain.
As staged by director Sherri Kronfeld and set designer John McDermott on a few low benches and a stretch of abandoned-looking track, the show sets a consistently effective mystical mood. However, with the audience seated in a one-row broken circle around the action, the main stage light mounted on a pole is a distraction, at least from some angles. The dialogue, especially in Ms. Stephens’s quiet delivery, occasionally gets lost when she’s facing away from you. (The room is a large, low-ceilinged space without theatrical acoustics.)
Fortunately, the playwright writes unfailingly pregnant and resonant dialogue. (An anachronistic use of the modern-day euphemism “passed” for “died” is a rare exception.) And the actors bring these memorable folks to vivid life via committed characterizations and a smoky chemistry.
That chemistry flares into a deathly roar at the climactic moment when Mattie demands Jamie take her to a company party and thereby reveal their relationship. Shortly thereafter, the playwright whisks us forward to the present day, when modern-day avatars of Mattie and James meet a mysterious fate by the same stretch of tracks.
The real tracks associated with the Maco Light were pulled up in 1977, and according to most sources no ghostly lights have been seen since. But just as generational memory somehow persists (as Ms. Brunstetter argues persuasively in this work), so do legends. They’re damned hard to derail.
Take Her to See the Maco Lights is presented by Superwolf at the Invisible Dog Art Center, 51 Bergen St., Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, NY until Nov. 18.