PITTSFIELD — A separated interracial couple finds a rare moment of grace in an otherwise graceless situation near the end of Christopher Demos-Brown's thoughtful, penetrating new play, "American Son," which is being given a haunting, pitch-perfect world premiere at Barrington Stage Company's Boyd-Quinson Mainstage.
It is nearly 5:30 in the morning in a waiting room at a Miami police station. An interracial couple — Kendra Ellis-Connor (Tamara Tunie), a professor of psychology at a nearby university, and Scott Connor (Michael Hayden), an FBI agent — recently separated after 20 years of marriage — have been trying, without much success, to obtain information from the police about the whereabouts of their 18-year-old son, Jamal, who has not come home after leaving the house at 8 p.m. Efforts to contact him via cell phone have been fruitless. His new car, a Lexus bought for him as a high school graduation gift by his father, has been "identified," a young policeman tells Kendra, in a traffic stop incident.
As Kendra and Scott do their best not to anticipate the worst after receiving an inconclusive piece of information from an outside source, they reflect on and take pride in the their son. Kendra recalls a fight she and Scott had that left her in tears. Jamal, a baby then and misunderstanding why his mother was crying, offered her the kind of sweet, innocent comfort only a child at that age could give. And after, Kendra says, "he grabbed my tears with his l'il bitty hands and tried to put them back in my eyes."
Innocence dies hard and, as it does, it drags hope along in "American Son," which finds no ready answers.
As it is in life, nothing is simple in "American Son," which deals not only with relations between blacks and the police who are meant to protect them, but also with the collateral damage. This immaculately conceived and written play has a lot to say about marriage, family, responsibility, identity, home, victimization, fear, how we define ourselves and how others define us often with the most superficial and inadequate information.
Indeed, until an unexpected, gently touching and revealing interchange between Kendra and Scott near the end of "American Son," it is often difficult to understand how this tough, African-American woman, played by Tunie with stunning effect and honesty, pulled herself from a background of disadvantage to become a PhD. in psychology and this scrappy FBI agent of Irish descent (Hayden in an equally telling performance), got together and built what appeared to be a good, strong, solid life for themselves and their son, whose presence in this room (brilliantly designed by Brian Prather) is palpable.
This is situation takes no prisoners. The fissures in Kendra and Scott's marriage are exposed. For Kendra in particular the pain of betrayal, abandonment and loss — as a wife, a mother and an African-American — is profound and inexhaustible.
Demos-Brown depicts the police here with compelling complexity — both victims, to one degree or another, of the cycle of violence and distrust. One, an inexperienced white officer, Paul Larkin (perfectly played by Luke Smith), is in way over his head as he tries to deal with Kendra's fierce maternal determination and impatience. The other, Lt. Stokes, the A.M shift liaison officer (played by André Ware with formidable authority and command} has been forged in the crucible of reality, the streets. Stokes does not suffer fools gladly, not even smart ones like Connor who act foolishly.
Demos-Brown reserves the play's most potent debate for Kendra and Stokes.
"American Son" does not yield its secrets easily and when it does, it does so in the natural course of events, without melodrama.
Demos-Brown's facility for structure is impressive and his writing throughout is masterly and authentic. He has no illusions about the way in which the American culture works. He has a keen depth of understanding of the complex interactions he has set in motion here and so does this uniformly skilled company of actors who, in collaboration with Julianne Boyd's savvy direction burrow deep beneath the skin of their respective characters.
"It's coming apart," Kendra says with chilling apprehension. "Everything's coming apart."
Indeed. And it's questionable whether all the king's horses and all the king's men can put anything together again.
What: "American Son" by Christopher Demos-Brown. Directed by Julianne Boyd
With: Tamara Tunie, Michael Hayden, André Ware, Luke Smith
Designers: Brian Prather, scenic; Sara Jean Tosetti, costume; Scott Pinckney, lighting; Brad Berridge, sound
Who: Barrington Stage Company
When: Through July 9. Evenings — Tuesday and Wednesday at 7; Thursday through Saturday at 8. Matinees — Friday at 2; Sunday at 5
Running time: 1 hour 21 minutes (no intermission)
Where: Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, 30 Union St., Pittsfield
How: (413) 236-8888; barringtonstageco.org; at box office — 30 Union St.