Deep Are the Roots
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 8, 2012
With Deep Are the Roots, Metropolitan Playhouse once again proves itself invaluable by showing theatergoers a vivid piece of their past in that most immediate and visceral of environments—that is, on the intimate stage of their cozy East Village theatre. Artistic director Alex Roe and his gifted collaborators haven't reached back as far as they usually do: this play by Arnaud d'Usseau and James Gow was written in 1945, when it was a sizeable (and controversial) hit on Broadway. It's very much the kind of play they don't seem to write anymore—an "issue" play, wearing its sensationalism on its sleeve and possessed of an earnest sense of purpose.
The issue in this case is that of the "New" (i.e., post-World War II) South, and how the decaying values of its dying aristocracy might be reconciled with an awakening movement toward Civil Rights and the full societal engagement of the African American population. There is enormous value in experiencing the explosive journey mapped in this play.
The place is the living room of a stately old home in (I'm guessing) Georgia that is the residence of former Senator Ellsworth Langdon and his two adult daughters. It is late spring 1945 and the victorious American forces are coming back from Europe. Among those returning is Brett Charles, the son of the Langdons' long-time Negro servant Bella. Brett, a bright, ambitious young man, is a favorite in the Langdon household, especially of its two female members. Alice, the older daughter, has viewed him as something of a pet project all her life, educating him and helping him to opportunities that satisfy her interest in improving the lot of the American Negro. Genevra ("Nevvie"), who is several years younger, regards Brett as a friend and possibly more. They were brought up together and for a long time—until their association was deemed improper—she and Brett were playmates and companions.
The Senator himself, a cagey relic of the Jim Crow Era, is paternalistic to his daughters and his servants (including Brett, by extension), but his world view in no way includes a society where blacks and whites are equal. The Langdons' cousin, Roy Maxwell, typifies a contrasting attitude, one that seeks a way to manage the "problem" of black men like Brett who have seen more of the world and been placed in positions of responsibility, without giving up any of the economic or political clout that's been monopolized by whites for centuries. And, providing still another point of view, there's Alice's fiancé, a journalist from the North named Howard Merrick, who believes strongly in liberty and equality for all, regardless of the color of their skin.
d'Usseau and Gow cannily present these various perspectives as they tell the story of the first week following Brett's victorious homecoming from the War. Alice wants Brett to go to the University of Chicago on a scholarship she's arranged for him. Roy wants Brett to become principal of the local segregated "colored" school. Nevvie wants Brett to be with her. The Senator wants Brett and all those like him to disappear.
The key question, of course, is what does Brett himself want? I will leave that for you to discover when you see this skillful rendition of the play.
Michael Hardart's direction is generally quite effective, stalling just a bit during the talky middle act, which possibly could benefit from some pruning for it is very repetitious. Emily Inglis's set is fine and evocative, as are Sidney Fortner's excellent costumes. The ensemble is of very high quality, dominated by Teresa Kelsey, who gives us a thoroughly complex protagonist in Alice, a woman torn between old and new ways (the play's title refers to her), sincerely wanting to do the right thing yet conflicted as she tries to determine exactly what that is. Lending strong support are the always-formidable J.M. McDonough as the tough, irascible old Senator; Gloria Sauve as Brett's mother Bella, a woman of incalculable strength and dignity; Michael James Anderson as Howard, the play's conscience and the audience's guide into the story; and Stephen Pelletier, who conveys the troubled, hypocritical soul of Cousin Roy.
Deep Are the Roots was a hot potato in its time; it ran more than a year, but there was no film version and certainly no tour to the cities of the American South. Recalling that—and the fact that this was only a couple of generations ago—gives immense weight to the experience you'll have at Metropolitan Playhouse, where a small but significant piece of the American Past, via its drama, is being brought to life.