American Son – Review by Tom Holehan

First, can we talk about the renovation? OMG! TheaterWorks, Hartford’s off-Broadway gem, is now boasting a beautifully renovated and expanded lobby area along with comfortable new seating and vastly improved lavatory facilities. Artistic Director Rob Ruggiero was all smiles on opening night as he welcomed the crowd who enthusiastically agreed with him as he highlighted all the changes. Bravo.

Returning to their home space, after producing plays over the summer at the nearby Wadsworth Athenaeum, the theatre is now offering the recent Broadway drama, “American Son” by Christopher Demos-Brown. In New York, the play had a starry production with Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale and Jeremy Jordan in key roles (it was filmed and can currently be seen on Netflix). At TheaterWorks, Rob Ruggiero is most fortunate to have actors Ami Brabson and J. Anthony Crane playing an increasingly frantic, biracial couple attempting to locate the whereabouts of their son at a Miami police station. The timely drama looks at issues of race and the police and also explores the relationship of the couple who, under extreme circumstances, let their true colors show.

Ruggiero’s taut direction helps some of Demos-Brown’s talky, speechifying sections of the play that often resembles more debate than drama. But both Brabson and Crane keep the viewer riveted as layers of personal history unravel between the couple. Why does the white cop (John Ford-Dunker) appear to be so much more cooperative with the husband than the wife? Why is a missing black teen apparently treated differently via police procedure than a white teen? “American Son” is a provocative piece of writing done in a tight 90 minute, real-time format. The supporting roles of the police, played by Ford-Dunker and Michael Genet as his African-American Lieutenant, are not terribly convincing and weaken the drama whenever they are on stage. It is fortunate that Brabson and Crane, however, anchor the majority of this gripping production.

Set Designer Brian Prather’s pristine and authentic police station setting is given the appropriate glaring fluorescent lighting by designer Matthew Richards. There’s a nifty rain effect that occurs late in the drama, too, that I’m not sure who to credit but it’s effective. So is Frederick Kennedy’s crackling sound design and Herin Kaputkin’s costuming. Best of all “American Son” gives you plenty to think about long after leaving the theatre.

“American Son” continues at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street in Hartford through November 23. For ticket reservations or further information call: 860.527.7838 or visit: www.twhartford.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor and resident critic of WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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