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  • Writer's pictureJames Sheldon

Gloucester Stage Wraps Outdoor Season with Thought-Provoking ‘Reparations’

Review by Michael Hoban, New England 9/8/2021

If you’re considering seeing the Gloucester Stage production of Reparations, but are wary of being drawn into a staged version of yet another politically charged discussion in our increasingly polarized world, let me say that the title may be a bit misleading. While the play does examine the topics of race and privilege, the 400 years of systemic racism is not necessarily the central theme; instead, Reparations delves into a more universal horror while exploring the intersection of power and evil.

From L to R: Lisa Tharps, Angela Pierce, Jason Bowen and Malcolm Ingram in Gloucester Stage’s ”Reparations’

Following a book launch party, Ginny (Angela Pierce), a recently widowed book editor at a publishing firm, goes home with Reg (Jason Bowen), an uber-charming freelance travel writer and aspiring author a dozen or more years her junior – who also happens to be black. There’s some flirtatious banter between the two that leaves little doubt as to where this is heading, despite Ginny’s nervousness after having been out of the dating scene for so long (which she quells by gunning down a few scotches). The two discuss his novel, featuring a hard-boiled black NY detective with a bent for social justice (“Obama with a badge and a gun”) working on an international case. She asks him to repeat a line from the novel that piqued her interest at the party, and he acquiesces: “Of all the contraband we smuggle into our lives, self-delusion is by far the dearest and the deadliest. “ It’s not only a great line, it also serves as a nice bit of foreshadowing – as the characters will soon learn.

The next morning over breakfast, the light racial banner from the evening before takes a slightly edgier tone. While Reg increasingly begins to frame much of his commentary through the lens of race (“First time with a black man?” he asks her), she does herself no favors by resorting to what can easily be viewed as convenient racial stereotypes, including speculation about where he may live, i.e. “a fourth-floor walkup in a ‘fringey’ part of town.” But she quickly rebounds from her apparent gaffe by noting that most freelance writers typically earn less than $40,000, which means he’s unlikely to live in Manhattan’s tonier sections. But Ginny is also deeply ensconced in the trappings of a world typically associated with white privilege – the Upper East Side condo, the prestigious prep school where her now deceased husband was a revered teacher, and the whitest of all recreations, sailing on their 35-foot schooner.

But Reg isn’t there to deliver a sermon on racial justice, as the plot takes a shocking and powerful turn when he reveals a dark secret and the true nature of his visit – tryst aside. He also reveals himself to be no paragon of virtue, telling her at the close of Act I, “I’m going to use you to get everything I want”.

Without revealing any further details, the plot thickens considerably when Ginny’s friends, the Jacobs, arrive for a brunch. Alistair Jacobs (Malcolm Ingram) is the head of a large London publishing house that Reg sees as his ticket to getting his book published, and his younger Nigerian wife Millie (Lisa Tharps) is the chief of pediatrics in a London hospital.

What follows is a series of bombshell revelations from the characters that would make a soap opera writer blush. Which isn’t to say the story lines aren’t compelling. To the contrary, you’re unlikely to see this much drama in an entire Netflix series. And it’s tough stuff, particularly – one might imagine – for survivors of trauma. The dialogue occasionally veers into cliché, which playwright James Sheldon can be forgiven for with so many plot points to explore, and while the resolutions may require a generous buy-in from the audience, they’re ultimately satisfying.

Director Miriam Cyr smartly sets a brisk pace for the second act, and gets strong performances from her skilled cast. This is the final outdoor production of the season for Gloucester Stage at the Windhover Center for the Performing Arts, and by far the weightiest. While the previous offerings (Tiny Beautiful Things, Baskerville, and Seared) provided much needed uplifting and comic relief from the world of COVID isolation, Reparations is like an emotional hammer. One thing is sure, there will be plenty to talk about on the ride home from picturesque Rockport.

‘Reparations’ – Written by James Sheldon. Directed by Miriam Cyr. Creative Team: Jon Savage (Scenic Design); Kat C. Zhou(Lighting Design); Veronica Barron and Christopher Vu (Sound Design); Deirdre McCabe Gerrard (Costume Design); Logan Pitts (Dramaturg). Presented by Gloucester Stage Company at Windhover Center for the Performing Arts, 257R Granite St, Rockport, MA through September 19.

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