Change and loss are the parallel themes of the closing production of TheatreWorks' 2007/2008 season, Caroline, Or Change now playing at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. The musical's heroine, Caroline Thibodeaux, brilliantly realized by C. Kelly Wright, is coping with both the loss of an abusive spouse and the stirrings of a growing daughter who refuses to remain a child. Across town, a young boy named Noah Gellman, played with confidence and maturity beyond his years by Julian Hornik, a peninsula middle-school student, has recently lost his mother to cancer. And in the society at large, the events of one particular day in late November, 1963, are about to turn a nation's guts inside out.
Not coincidentally, it is the actual change in Noah's pockets, and Caroline's interaction with said ducats as the black maid doing laundry in a white, Jewish boy's basement, that provides the turning point in playwright Tony Kushner's oddly tin-eared story. Caroline is incomprehensibly angry with her lot in life ("I wish every afternoon I'd die," she wails), from her economic oppression to her longing for the lips of Nat King Cole. Nevertheless, she has a strong bond with Noah ("He's so shy, a hug could break him"), based in part on her willingness to let him light the occasional cigarette for her, and her practice of returning all of the loose change she finds in the boy's dirty clothes. Noah's carelessly accounted coins mean little to him, but to Caroline they would be enough to switch from serving her own growing boys meat-flavored bread, as she calls it, to real ground chuck. Caroline only makes $30 a week, but honesty and honor compel her to return each and every coin to young Noah.
Noah's basement is Caroline's domain throughout much of the musical, which to my ear sounded more like an opera and, in some sections, the mono-tonal arrangements that are familiar to anyone who has attended a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. (Jeanine Tesori's mostly unhummable tunes also draw from sources as varied as Detroit soul, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and eastern European klezmer.) In the basement, the washing machine transforms into a hip-swishing apparition, delightfully brought to life by Allison Blackwell (she's great here, and even better as Caroline's forward-thinking friend, Dotty). The dryer is personified by a devilish baritone in black and red, inhabited all too briefly for my liking by James Monroe Iglehart ("Time has come," he roars, "to suffer heat!"). Caroline is also kept company by a radio, which is represented, Greek-chorus style, by a trio of women in red sequins (Marsha Lawson, Adrienne Muller, and Dawn L. Troupe, all of whom belt out some serious solos).
Inserting herself into Caroline's world is Noah's stepmother, Rose, keenly played by Eileen Tepper. Rose is a relentless pain in the ass who manages her life, and the lives of others, by drawing endless numbers of arbitrary lines in the sand. The management of the coins in young Noah's pockets is one such line, although the lesson Rose wants to teach him has less to do with capitalism and the value of a dollar (Randy Nazarian is terrific as Rose's card-carrying Commie dad) than giving the lad a taste of the liberal guilt Rose believes he should feel by putting poor, poor Caroline in the position of coming across his loose change on laundry day. Naturally Rose makes things even worse by decreeing that anything Caroline finds in Noah's pockets is hers to keep, thus upsetting the moral balance between a motherless child and his unlikely surrogate mom.
The animation of inanimate objects in the basement is one of the most engaging aspects of Caroline, Or Change, which may be why the moon's appearance is one of the few staging disappointments. Anise Ritchie handles her numbers beautifully and regally, but her immobile presence stands in stark contrast to the rest of the production, which benefits from quick set changes in which elements are mixed and matched as the story's circumstances demand. Poor moon just stands there, all dressed up with nowhere to go.
More troubling, though, than a relatively minor detail like an immobile moon is the tone of Kushner's piece, which teeters on condescending. Not surprisingly given his personal history (Kushner describes Caroline, Or Change as "A mis-memory play"), he gets the New York Jews transplanted in Louisiana absolutely right, but he doesn't have as much success capturing the inner life and external reality of Caroline and her kin. Yes, Kushner gives Caroline some very good lines to sing, and Wright does an amazing job of expressing Caroline's angry, bitter, and tender sides, sometimes all in the same breath and sideways glance. But we never see the cause of Caroline's catharsis as the musical draws to a close. Kushner's calculated excuse of "mis-memory" only takes one so far.
The lesson here is probably as simple as that old saw about writing what you know. We see, for example, a lot of the interior of the Gellman home: there's Noah's upstairs bedroom, his father's music nook, the dining room, the kitchen, and, of course, the basement. We even get a revealing window on the ambivalence some Jews felt toward "Negroes" in 1963: Noah's paternal grandparents can accept the ones in Louisiana because they don't stir up trouble like those in Alabama and Mississippi, whereas Rose's father believes Martin Luther King is not radical enough.
But when the action shifts to Caroline's home, we aren't permitted past the front porch. It's as if Kushner simply could not imagine it. He's no better at getting inside the heads of some of his characters. Take Caroline's daughter, Emmie, whose infectious smile and terrific voice belong to Valisia LeKae. What's the driving motivation for her social conscience and radicalism? According to Kushner, it appears to be materialism. I don't mean to suggest that tangible goods and the pleasures they provide are poor motivators, or that economic justice was not a part of the greater cause, but the civil rights movement was also about a person's right to vote and sit where they liked on a public bus. Kushner's Caroline is conveniently practical, more absorbed by her daily economic circumstances than the injustices done to her because of her race. Kushner is equally practical: he'd rather tell us a bedtime story about the change in a white boy's pocket than the more complicated tale of how change finally touched Caroline.
TheatreWorks' production of Caroline, Or Change continues at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts through April 27, 2008. 500 Castro Street, (650) 903-6000. For tickets and information visit theatreworks.org.