Change comes in many forms in Tony Kushner’s musical memory play “Caroline, or Change,” receiving a vital production by the Jefferson Performing Arts Society and the Loyola University Department of Theatre Arts and Dance.
Impeccably directed by Laura Hope, this evocative tale of retrospective guilt deals with pocket change and social change, but most urgently, personal change.
Based on an incident from Kushner's own childhood, set in Lake Charles, in late 1963, the story focuses on Caroline Thibodeaux (Troi Bechet), the uneducated, divorced mother of three making $30 a week in an achingly dull job as a housemaid for the Gellmans, a somewhat affluent Jewish family.
In the hot, airless basement Caroline, who is black, does the laundry for her white employers, a chore that includes digging loose coins out of filthy trousers. Her companions are whimsical figures of fantasy: the radio — represented by a female trio a la The Shirelles, and a singing washing machine and dryer — humanized objects representing Caroline’s muted yearnings and resentments.
Caroline has a daily visitor in Noah (Kristen Swanson), the Gellmans’ 8-year-old son who infinitely favors Caroline over his parents — Stuart (Mark Weinberg) his remote, clarinet-playing father, and Rose (Anja Mayer-Avsharian), a transplanted New Yorker whom Stuart married after Noah’s mother died of cancer.
Attempting to teach Noah a lesson for carelessly leaving coins in his pockets, Rose declares that Caroline will keep all the money she finds.
“I ain’t no jackdaw ragpick,” Caroline initially protests, but the small change could mean big changes for her impoverished family.
Caroline’s quandary skyrockets when Noah’s grandfather (Paul Bello) gives him $20 for Hanukkah. When Noah inadvertently leaves the cash in his pocket, Caroline is confronted with a soul-wrenching decision.
“Caroline” is not your mainstream sing-along Broadway show. There are no catchy odes or rousing anthems in Jeanine Tesori’s rich and varied score. Kushner nevertheless fashions a deeply satisfying evening of thoughtful, emotionally involving theater.
Hope’s powerful production is smartly backed by conductor Chris Bergeron’s skilled 11-piece orchestra.
Donna Clavijo’s splendid musical direction captures all of Tesori’s stunning harmonies, poignant counterpoints and complex interweaving melodies.
In an intense, incandescent performance, Bechet brilliantly portrays a decent woman who is afraid to change, tortured by undercurrents of anger and powerlessness churning beneath her unyielding pride.
Her voice has the virtuosity to make Tesori’s music soar. And just when you think she has no more to give, Bechet lets it rip in her unforgettable final aria, “Set me free ... don’t let my sorrow make evil of me!”
Casting a woman to play Noah asks a lot of the audience. Swanson’s take on the precocious youngster is terrific, but we never lose awareness of gender-bending and one can only imagine the impact of a real 8-year-old in the part.
The explosive climax, when Noah lashes out at Caroline, and she slashes back with devastating results, may lack the depth of irreversible destruction, and Kushner’s ending vacillates a bit, but these are minor points in a brilliant production.
All the young actors shine, displaying great promise — particularly Brianna Thompson, as Dotty, who struggles to understand her friend’s hatefulness. Mayer-Avsharian’s Rose hilariously swivels from awkward attempts at communication to riotous fits of rage. And Gullage’s marvelous voice ranges from powerhouse numbers to sweet, heart-wrenching blues.
The strong ensemble features admirable supporting work from Lawrence Weber Jr. as a sorrowful Bus who announces the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and Jessica Martin as the Moon, the eternal symbol of change.
Designer Marty Aikens’ set craftily accommodates the multiple settings and works low-budget wonders. So too does Joshua Courney’s fluid, area-defining lighting design.
Kushner’s ultimate point uncloaks money as the villainous agent of the crisis. Everyone, from Caroline’s envy-stricken children to Rose’s radical socialist father, is perverted by the idea of money. It is the obstacle that impedes bonds of friendship and thwarts attempts to love each other and ourselves.
“Caroline, or Change”
When: Through Nov. 5
Where: Westwego Performing Arts Theatre, 177 Sala, Westwego
Info: (504) 885-2000 or jpas.org