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Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2009

Mindful of the Truth

Theater Review

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Trouble in Mind, a drama by Alice Childress exploring race relations, occupies the "play within a play" theatrical sub-genre. Like many such works, it possesses a mirror-like quality, reflecting the audience's own assumptions back on themselves. It would be tempting to consider the script, set in the 1950s, when it was written, a mere curio of a less enlightened age, yet that is the very mistake Childress insists we avoid.

The Milwaukee Rep's production of Trouble in Mind (through Feb. 15) is directed by Timothy Douglas, who recognizes the script's contemporary relevance. His take on the material is crisp and modern in feel, and his actors occupy their roles with polished skill. Lee E. Ernst gives an even-keeled performance as Al Manners, the white director of a play about black people. Al believes he's doing something great, but one of his actresses, Wiletta (sturdily inhabited by Stephanie Berry), is aware from the start that there is more falsity than truth in Al's vision, which sits less and less well with her as the story progresses. Her growing dissatisfaction leads to friction with the other members of the cast, some of whom-like old Sheldon Forrester (portrayed with brilliant dynamism by Ernest Perry Jr.)-just want to do their job and get paid.

The play within the play, of which we only see a few scenes, attempts to engender tears and sympathy for the plight of black people. Yet Childress knew that emotional catharsis was not what led people to attempt change. Douglas and his cast understand this as well. Thus, the Rep's production doesn't ask for tears-or even for applause, though it earns plenty-but instead simply confronts us with Childress's direct and difficult truths, and respects that we won't turn away from them.