Breath-grabbing 'American Son' offers powerful start to TheaterWorks Hartford's 2019-20 season

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HARTFORD, Conn. — Hope, dreams, the future have a hard time of it in Christopher Demos-Brown's compelling drama, "American Son," which is being given a riveting, emotionally and dramatically vibrant production at TheaterWorks Hartford.

The setting is the waiting room of a Miami-Dade County, Florida police station. It is just after 4 in the morning and the African American woman occupying the essentially empty space already has been here almost an hour. Her repeated efforts to reach someone — her 18-year-old son, it turns out — on his cell phone have proven fruitless. Impatient, frustrated, apprehensive, the woman, Kendra Ellis-Connor (Amy Brabson in a gutty, earthy astutely-shaped performance), is a professor of psychology at a nearby college. When she is not pacing or using her phone to reach her son or a friend of his or her estranged husband, she sits on a padded bench in the center of the room, nervously and without end turning the phone in her fingers.

She has last seen her son at about 8 p.m. when he left the house in the aftermath of an argument with his mother, taking off in the white used Lexus that's just been given him as a gift by his white father, Scott Connor (J. Anthony Crane who cannily navigates the complexities of a play-by-the-rules FBI agent who is about to be betrayed by a system he believes in and is sworn to defend and protect).

Kendra has been given virtually no information by an ambitious, dedicated rookie cop, Officer Paul Larkin (played with convincing sincerity, ingenuousness by John Ford Dunker) who keeps deferring to yet-to-arrive-but-he's-on-the-way boss, A.M. Liaison Officer Lt. John Stokes (played by Michael Genet with skillful nuance and authority), an African American who has risen through the ranks and is very clear-sighted about the law and his responsibilities to and within the system.

Jamal never physically appears in "American Son" but his presence is constant and vivid. The image that emerges from the descriptions and discussions about him between his parents is telling, revealing and full. The product of a bi-racial marriage, Jamal has just graduated from an exclusive, largely white private school where he is struggling to fit in. He will be going to West Point in the fall but at 18 he is struggling to find himself; identify himself. "He's just trying to figure out who he is," she tells her uncomprehending estranged husband. "Explore who he is" — not at all an uncommon journey for someone Jamal's age but exacerbated here by the fact that the color of his skin makes him stand out. He is one of only three black students in huis school, out of more than 400.

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While Kendra, without being permissive, understands the need to cut Jamal a little slack as he makes his way in the world, Scott's view is a more narrowly defined. There is, as well, an unspoken feeling that beneath the sense of assurance Scott struggles to maintain as the evening progresses, his own lawman's sense of the realities of life suggests that Jamal, Kendra and himself are dancing on the edge of an American nightmare.

After a separation of only four months, there is a good deal of unresolved business between Kendra and Scott as they uneasily navigate the rules of conduct they have established for themselves. These are two decent people, parents with means, who are united by their clear love for their son; fighting against all reason and hope for the best possible outcome.

Structurally impeccable, "American Son" plays out in real time as a who-done-what thriller. Demos-Brown serves key pieces of information, turning points, in carefully measured amounts. Without preaching or sermonizing, Demos-Brown has crafted a wrenching portrait of a society in which no one — not even those with financial wherewithal — is left unscathed by fear of the "other" and a justice system that is neither fair nor balanced.

Director Rob Ruggiero and his considerably more-than-able cast take the measure, and then some, of Demos-Brown's masterly play in an equally masterly production that recognizes the details that make up the whole; that builds with poignant and agonizing measure to a breathtaking ending.

Particularly in this production, "American Son" — which had its impressive world premiere in 2016 at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield — sets up shop under your skin and refuses to budge. What a way for TheaterWorks Hartford to open its 2019-20 season in its inviting, handsomely renovated theater complex at 233 Pearl St.


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