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He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box

Kay will never know whether her mother shot herself in the head or whether she was found stabbed to death in the freight elevator.— Christopher Aherne in Adrienne Kennedy's He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box
>He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box
Juliana Canfield as Kay and Tom Pecinka as Chris (Photo credit: Gerry Goodstein).
He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box may be the most intriguing title of this theater season.

Adrienne Kennedy's new play, set during the Second World War, concerns two young people who have grown up in Montefiore, Georgia (population something less than 600). Christopher (Tom Pecinka), white and patrician, is son of Harrison Aherne, the town's wealthiest, most ruthless citizen. Kay (Juliana Canfield) is the daughter of a black adolescent, impregnated at age 15 by a much older white man from the Aherne's social set.

Kay and Chris have been casually acquainted all their lives but, because Montefiore society is segregated, they couldn't be schooled together, attend religious services in the same church, or sit in the same section of the town's motion picture theater. Over the years, though, the two have observed each other with interest.

Kay has watched Chris, along with his father, coming and going from the Aherne peach orchards. He has seen her "at the movie house, sitting up in the colored section." Theirs has been a relationship of mutual longing that couldn't be acknowledged.

After attending his mother's funeral, Chris approaches Kay, gently and with trepidation. At first, he speaks in a roundabout way of his feelings. He hints at distaste for the double standards of a society in which the races can't mingle openly but powerful white men, such as his father, have their way with vulnerable black women. (One of the town's worst kept secrets is that Chris has at least three half-siblings whom Harrison Aherne has fathered with African-American women.)

"I'm going to leave for New York tomorrow," Chris tells Kay. "I'm never coming back. I want to go on the stage."

First, he asks permission to write to her; then, on impulse, he proposes marriage. "We could run away and live in Paris after the War." She accepts his proposal.

Most of Kennedy's play consists of antiphonal monologues in which the actors intone excerpts from Chris and Kay's letters to each other. It's a colloquy conducted over a six-month period from distant places — Kay as a student at Atlanta University; Chris in New York, trying to make his way in the theater.

In this pre-nuptial correspondence, the two strain to understand mysteries that they couldn't solve in childhood and that reverberate from generation to generation. Revisiting the past, they linger on an especially brutal episode in Kay's family history and Harrison Aherne's odd, seemingly obsessive relationship with the black community of Montefiore.

Kennedy is renowned for a style of dramatic writing that's all her own. He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box is as poetic, mysterious, and intricately structured as one might expect from her past work. Kennedy's plays have never been for audiences in search of mere diversion and certainly not for the lazy-minded. At age 86, this inexhaustibly avant-garde dramatist isn't making compromises for those who find her work difficult. But she's not being perversely obscure either.

This play — like earlier Kennedy works such as Funny House of a Negro (revived by Signature Theater in 2016) — is made up of narrative fragments with frequent allusions to literature, film, history, and pop culture. As the action proceeds, the fragments coalesce, like mosaic tiles or the colors and shapes of a kaleidoscope. The bits and pieces, which seem unrelated at first, blend into narrative that inspires awe and pity.

Tom Pecinka and Juliana Canfield are well matched as the young southerners fleeing their origins. Canfield, a 2017 Yale Drama School graduate, is making a noteworthy New York debut.

Thanks to Beth McGuire, the company's voice and dialogue coach, both actors speak in accents appropriate to their backgrounds. Both lend a musical, almost melodic, quality to Kennedy's near-verse text, and convey a sense of being unspoiled by all that's rotten in their characters' early environment.

Pecinka, a sexually ambidextrous Patroclus in the Central Park Troilus and Cressida two summers ago, plays Chris as simultaneously virile and touchingly fey. And his earnest impulsiveness is just right for a young provincial of 1941.

Pecinka performs two songs from Noel Coward's Bittersweet gracefully and unselfconsciously, with a refreshing absence of the camp sensibility that operetta is apt to inspire. He also provides the voice of Harrison Aherne, the third on-stage character in this two-actor drama, and serves as puppeteer for the mannequin which rather eerily represents the older man.

Evan Yionoulis, who directed Theatre for a New Audience's Lortel Award winning revival of Kennedy's Ohio State Murders in 2007, imbues the playwright's harrowing material with tenderness while keeping the action on the move throughout. Despite the rambling, reflective nature of Kennedy's monologues, Yionoulis's production is a swift, emotionally intense 50 minutes.

Scenic designer Christopher Barreca has created a dark, spooky playing space with audience seating on three sides. A steep, narrow staircase at the rear of the stage seems to climb to heaven; and a vaulted roof with smudgy windows makes the environment imposing but somehow unnerving, as well.

As the action moves from place to place, lighting designer Donald Holder and video designer Austin Switser transform Barreca's set as though by stage magic. In the evening's most arresting technical feat, Switser projects onto the steep staircase an abstrat black and grey video that races at an agitato tempo, turning the stage into a high velocity train. Kay is traveling north to unite with Chris and face their mutual fate; and the Switzer's video projection gives this sequence a sense of tragic inevitability.

But what of that intriguing title? To reveal how it fits in the chronicle of Kay and Chris would be a spoiler. Suffice it to say that "he brought her heart back in a box" captures, with a poetic flourish, the ugliness and institutionalized insanity of the Jim Crow South that Kennedy experienced in childhood and resurrects in this melancholy play.

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He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box by Adrienne Kennedy
Directed by Evan Yionoulis
Cast: Juliana Canfield (Kay) and Tom Pecinka (Chris).
Set designer: Christopher Barreca
Costume designer: Montana Levi Blanco
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Composer and sound designer: Justin Ellington
Video designer: Austin Switser
Production Stage Manager: Cole Bonenberger
T Running Time: 50 minutes, no intermission
Theatre for a New Audience Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Brooklyn
From 1/17/18; opening 1/30/18; closing 2/11/18.
January 18-21, 23-27, 30 & 31, and February 1-4 and 6-11 at 7:30pm; January 28 at 7pm; and February 3, 4, 10 and 11 at 2pm.
Reviewed by Charles Wright at 1/27/18 press preview

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