The Pain of the Past

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

If you criticize LA theater to a diehard intimate theater fan, it won't be long before the Antaeus Company is mentioned as a defense . . . or even a trump card.

Antaeus mixes a classical soul with what should be the promise of LA theater: an abundance of talented, trained actors. Their mission is to do the 'great plays,' the classics and given their focus on the actor - rather than say the director - they are subject to the pitfall of classical theaters everywhere. What I call 'natural history theater.' You know these productions when you see them? It feels a bit like watching a diorama come to life; as if you're separated from the action by not only the 'fourth wall' but also by the respectful gauze of time.

But sometimes, Antaeus captures magic. They reach back and breathe new life into a forgotten gem. Their current production of Alice Childress' 1966 play Wedding Band: A Love-Hate Story in Black and White is filled with that inspiration.

Set in South Carolina at the height of World War I, the play swirls around Julia who moves into a rented room and disturbs a vibrant backyard community. In simplest terms, it's a play about Julia's 10 year romance and forbidden marriage to Herman. You see Julia's black and Herman's white and this is 1918 so miscegenation laws rule the South. While this thwarted union is the heart of the play, it's resonance is broader and far deeper.

I'm embarrassed to admit I'd never heard of this play - though I imagine I'm far from alone. At one moment it has the careful plotting and atmosphere of Tennessee Williams - air thick with characters, community, and dramatic foreshadowing. It's easy to imagine it along side Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, written just a few years earlier. But it also feels terribly modern - prefiguring the cast and dramatic nuance of an August Wilson play.

What drew me in and kept me was the wonderfully complicated writing. It's one of those plays where you think you know where it's going and then it surprises you - not with a trick of plot but with the marvelous foibles of being human and in love.

It's easy to imagine a hundred terrible productions of Wedding Band. You can conjure up the personal politics obscuring the subtle reversals. There are speeches and lines that would tempt simpler actors to grandstand. While there's no escaping that the gravity of the play is race, Ms. Childress also tackles class, and transformation, and fundamental humanity. In lesser hands, these edges could be smoothed over. Fortunately, director Gregg T. Daniel and the ensemble acting chops of Antaeus show restraint and allow Ms. Childress' words to come to life.

Don't let this gem pass you by. You're not likely to get another chance to see this play done quite so well - which in itself - is a tragedy.

Wedding Band: A Love-Hate Story in Black and White plays at the Antaeus Theater Company in North Hollywood through December 7.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with an intermission.

Photo: Daniel G Lam