Compellingly dramatic and musically inspiring, Caroline, Or Change-the musical now onstage at Street Theatre Company through the end of the month-might very well be the most startling and thoroughly extraordinary production from the company in its rather brief existence in Nashville.
Certainly, in the few years that Cathy Street and her eponymous theater company have been presenting top-flight theatrical adventures for local audiences, the critical acclaim has come fast and furious. From affecting dramas like The Bad Seed to concert offerings like Chess, Ragtime and Tommy, or smaller-scaled musicals like Altar Boyz and The Last Five Years, Street Theatre Company since 2005 has continued to raise the bar for local theater and, without doubt, Caroline, Or Change represents the company as the apotheosis of creativity, ambition and imagination. Caroline, Or Change really is that good and you should not, under any circumstance, miss the opportunity to see for yourself what all the talk is about.
Directed with concentrated focus on storytelling, with remarkable attention to detail, by Peter Vann (who makes his STC debut with this offering), Caroline, Or Change features the music of Jeanine Tesori and a libretto by Tony Kushner that examines, dissects, illuminates the state of Southern affairs in late 1963, a time filled with equal parts hope and despair. Brought vividly to life by a stellar cast of actors who give performances of such brutal frankness, underpinned by honesty and ferocity of delivery, the production is at once awe-inspiring and almost shockingly in-your-face.
While the themes and situations considered by Caroline, Or Change continue to reverberate in our society as it lurches forward to a hoped-for post-racial period in American history, the musical's operatic intentions prove it to be so much more than you would initially expect. However, the story related in Kushner's libretto never seems heavy-handed or didactic, rather it is most effective because it tells a very personal story that reveals itself in a series of vignettes that are dramatically straightforward yet somehow manage to be told with a sense of whimsy and offbeat grace.
Set in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in November-December 1963-which includes the time during which President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas-the play focuses on the relationship between Caroline Thibodeaux, who works as the maid for a middle-class Jewish family, and Noah Gelman, the eight-year-old scion of the family. Caroline, taciturn and always frowning, and Noah, glum and introverted, are drawn together by both happenstance and the very nature of their personalities. The grey cloud that seems to hover above both characters brings them together to share hushed moments and brief conversations.
That is, of course, on the surface. As the plot evolves and we are drawn deeper into it, we learn that young Noah is mourning the death of his mother to cancer and his barely suppressed rage and diffidence to his father's remarriage to Rose, a woman who tries hard to bridge the gap between both Noah and Caroline with little, if any, success. Caroline is poor and downtrodden in the way that most domestics of the 1960s were in the South, their very existence dependent upon white employers and their social standing frozen by the years of black servitude in the region.
But change is afoot, and as the play goes on and the President is murdered by a madman in Dallas, events closer to home show that times indeed are changing, however slowly, for Caroline and her children and the people around them. As Rose strives to build a relationship with her stepson Noah, she struggles just as mightily to show Caroline that she wants to be her friend, yet her sometimes ham-handEd Manner betrays her own lack of understanding of the situation that exists in her very home.
Most of the play's action takes place in the basement of the Gelman home, the only one in the neighborhood that has such a room below ground. Actually, it's underwater, as Caroline explains, and it is in the dank and mildewy, hot and steamy workroom that she does the family laundry, dries the clothes and irons them, while managing to keep her white uniform spotless despite her hard work to create a sense of Southern gentility for the family. When Rose decides to teach Noah a lesson about the value of money-he's always leave jingle money in his pockets-she tells Caroline she can keep the loose change, that anything left in the family's pockets is her to keep.