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A CurtainUp Review
The Picture Box


When I look at the pictures I feel happy and sad at the same time. Momma never talked about where you came from. It’s all here, in this box. —Carrie to Mackie.

Carrie got to live. She’s got to leave it all behind her now. Like this box: all behind us now. Mackie

The pictures: they hold our past. All good and bad. —Josephine, his wife
The Negro Ensemble Company presents Cate Ryan’s The Picture Box, at The Beckett Theatre, a leisurely verbal slideshow of family memories. Not the traditional child-parent, but a family of three sharing love, trust and respect, facing life’s changes while a harsh undercurrent of racism is slicing through the gentle mood. Running barely over an hour, director Charles Weldon paces The Picture Box, placidly. Events are captured in snapshots and remain contained in memories. That is, until outsiders disrupt the calm.

The time is Election Day, 2008 in a peaceful village in Florida’s shore. Carrie (Jennifer Van Dyke) is a middle-aged white woman whose mother recently died and she is forced by high taxes and her New York job to sell the Florida home. She is now in the empty house with packing cartons, a table and a chair, and a manila envelope holding the contract of sale, still to be signed. With her are former caretakers, Mackie (Arthur French), an elderly black man, and his good-natured wife, Josephine (Elain Graham). The three are waiting for the buyers, Bob and Karen Allen, scheduled to visit the house for one last walk-through and signing.

For years there had been an easy social relationship between the nearby African-American neighborhood and the more affluent white homeowners on the shore, separated by a bridge. Recently, the tenor of the white neighborhood has changed. Like many retirees, Bob and Karen plan to demolish and rebuild bigger and better, adding an alarm system and electric fence, although Carrie emphasizes the safety of the area.

While the Allens are at the polls to vote against Obama, Carrie brings out a box of old pictures for Mackie to look through. What ties the plot together is the closeness of Carrie and Mackie, who had carried her home from the hospital when she was born and taken over the parental role from the child’s neglectful mother.

The characters in the play are sketched rather than fully drawn. However, Arthur French is outstanding in portraying Mackie’s gentle, down-to-earth manner and strong sense of pride. At 80 years old, he is frail but still ready to strike out when Bob speaks disrespectfully to Carrie. French evocatively brings to life Mackie’s experience in World War II and the loss of his son to drugs and then prison. He paints a colorful picture of Carrie’s dog, Chips, whom he had saved and you have to believe his outrage when Carrie’s parents sent the child to summer camp at age five. Only Mackey drove up to visit her. French tells Carrie, “Always had enough, thanks to your mother. We have two families: yours and mine. We all know each other. Went to all the weddings and funerals and everything else in between. Can’t separate our lives. Wouldn’t want to if I could.”

Jennifer Van Dyke adds little depth to Carrie. Carrie’s mother had ignored her daughter for many years but both women apparently came to some peace in the mother’s later years. How did this happen? How did Carrie feel about the stepfather who took up her mother’s time and attention? Has Carrie ever married, have children, what kind of job does she have?

Elain Graham is an energetic and generous Josephine. Josephine and Carrie’s mother had become “close as sisters” and Josephine cared for her until she died. Like Mackie, his wife is sad to see the changes, but she encourages Carrie to sign the contract and go on with her life.

The paucity of drama and skimpy historical depth keeps the pace listless, with a feel of resignation, heightened only by the hateful language of the buyers. Distinct from the start are good and bad characters. There is nothing likeable about the white buyers, stereotypically racist and boastful. Malachy Clear plays Bob with blunt outspokenness. Karen, played by Marisa Redanty, is embarrassed by her husband’s outbursts and tries to temper his words but there is little doubt that the two share the same beliefs.

Set designer Patrice Davison paints a bare home, once elegant. Costumes by Mark Caswell portray Josephine as a wife who obviously makes sure she and her husband are dressed clean and neat. Carrie, in jeans and a tee shirt, looks like she has been tidying up the empty house. Bob and Karen, in casual synthetics, resemble retirees moving South.

Arrive early and you will be energized by the sound of real R&B recordings, not the white covered renditions. Unfortunately, The Picture Box, does not continue with this energy concentrating on the love between these three people, a family.

The Picture Box by Cate Ryan
Directed by by Charles Weldon
Cast: Arthur French and Elain Graham with Jennifer Van Dyck, Malachy Cleary & Marisa Redanty
Set Design: Patrice Davidson
Costume Design: Mark Caswell
Production Stage Manager: Femi Heggie
Lighting Design: Ves Weaver
Running Time: 1 hours, 20 min. No intermission
Theater: Beckett Theater, 410 W. 42 Street. Between 9 and 10 Ave.
Tickets: $65. (212) 239-6200
Performances: Tues. at 7 PM. Wed. 2PM and 8PM. Thurs.,Fri. at 8PM. Sat. at 2PM, 8PM. Sun. at 3PM, 7PM.
Previews, 1/13/12. Opens 1/15/12. Closes 1/29/12.
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors based on performance 1/13/12
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