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A CurtainUp Review

Watching Cassandra Medley's Relativity, I was reminded of Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, for the two plays, while in most respects radically different, share an intense appreciation rarely seen in the theater: the impact of science on our lives. While Frayn's concern is atomic physics, Medley's is the interaction between racial politics and genetic research, with particular focus on the controversial idea that higher concentrations of melanin in the genetic makeup of people of color make them mentally, physically, and spiritually superior.

At the core of this extremely passionate and voluble play is an endangered mother-daughter relationship. The mother, Claire, has been on the melanin bandwagon for years, while her daughter, Kalima, in her own fledgling career as a cutting-edge molecular scientist, finds herself in increasingly in opposition to Claire's scientifically questionable views. Kalima has been unable to reveal this difference of perspective to her mother, however, and as her professional life progresses, the pressure mounts to reveal herself to Claire.

Much of the production unfortunately is imbued with an exasperatingly bombastic tone, and the stage often is filled with a clutter of sound -- including shouting, speechifying, sleek put-downs, and even recorded audience response to accent the ambience of public forums and speeches. At times the direction is so over-the-top that one wonders if the text is meant as a satire rather than the "explosive drama" announced to the press.

While racism deservedly remains an eternally valid topic, and an exploration of conflicting social attitudes even within racial minorities sometimes sheds new light on the larger issue (Dael Orlandersmith's Yellowman produced at Manhattan Theater Club a few years ago and a Pulitzer Prize runner-up, was an excellent example of this), Relativity unfortunately is an over-stirred pot with several too many ingredients. Conflicts involving loyalty and racism within familial, professional, and romantic relationships all struggle for attention on the tiny Ensemble Studio stage.

In spite of a script which feels overburdened to this critic, a recalibration of the acting and directing might provide significant improvement towards achieving writer Medley's substantial goals. As the central character Kalima, Melanie Nicholls-King's cautious and understated performance is no match for her powerhouse widowed mother Claire as forcefully played by Elaine Graham. As a result, the seemingly-intended balance in the Shavian-inspired arguments posed by Ms. Medley is totally absent; worse, the production largely sacrifices sympathy for both of these central characters.

The other three persons on stage unfortunately are little more than cartoons, although Kim Sullivan, Anthony Crane and Petronia Paley all do valiant work under the circumstances. Like protagonist Kalima (and the audience by extension), they all are "caught in the middle" of an emotional argument with no sane solution offered. If the play's focus can shift earlier to what in Medley's final line projects a future in which we "one day [will be] growing our own hearts," this ambitious work might expand its resonance considerably.

Editor's Note: For an annotated list to other science related plays reviewed at CurtainUp go here.

Playwright: Cassandra Medley
Directed by Talvin Wilks
Cast: Tony Crane, Elain Graham, Melanie Nicholls-King, Petronia Paley, and Kim Sullivan.
Costume Design: Clint Ramos
Scenic and Lighting Design: Maruti Evans
Sound Design: Graham Johnson
Multi-Media Designer: Maya Ciarrocchi
Running Time: Two hours, ten minutes including intermission
At the Ensemble Studio Theater, 549 West 52nd Street (between 10th and 11th Avenues) From 4/30/06 to 5/14/06; opening 4/30/06
Tuesday through Saturday at 8:00; weekend matinees on May 6, 13, and 14. Also May 7 @ 7
Viewed on Sunday, April 30, 2006 by Brad Bradley
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