All the little demons can be missed in a blink, scurrying about the corners of Adrienne Kennedy’s newest work in almost a decade, He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box. The Theatre for a New Audience production, playing at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, brings the playwright’s latest work to life until Feb. 11. It might be easier to miss, considering the play only runs for 45 minutes, though that is all Kennedy needs to completely eviscerate one’s complacency in the terrible things that happen when people are not looking.
Kennedy, whose works abstractly confront the horrors of racism, misogyny and ignorance, has written what appears to be her most straightforward play, though that is not saying much. Strange, otherworldly beings lurk in the corners of Christopher Barreca’s set, but they are not so otherworldly once they are named, like so many spirits of ancient myths.
It will take a lot more than names, however, to defeat such demonic forces as racism, rape and murder. Directed by Evan Yionoulis, whose mist-covered sensitivity is a fine match to the eeriness of Kennedy’s work, the play moves from the town of Montezuma, Georgia to New York City with nothing but a Marlovian monologue and twin monologues that appear to be letters between the two main characters of the work, Chris and Kay. Christopher Ahearne, played by Tom Pecinka, is the son of Harrison Ahearne, the architect of Montezuma’s segregation policies, and Kay, played by Juliana Canfield in her New York debut, is a young, biracial woman with a complicated family past. The two are in love, and plan to meet in New York one day to escape the family shame and the ghosts that haunt Montezuma.
These ghosts, however, do not like to be left behind. In 1943, it is difficult to run away from one’s past when the blood within is what they are trying to run away from. As Chris and Kay both confront their families’ twisted histories, the road between them and those pasts becomes shorter and shorter. Mysteries without answers abound, and the world of Jim Crow America is one filled to the brim with roots soaked in the blood of the innocent. With the play restored in unnerving detail by Yionoulis’ direction and Donald Holder’s lighting, the audience is surrounded by rings of bastard children singing and reproached by the harsh voices of terrified guardians.
It would be difficult to conjecture that Kennedy’s plays are intentionally scary, but it is her approach to the subject matter that cannot help but creep under the skin. One may have the wish for the story to end with the lovers running away happily while the ghosts are laid to rest. In Kennedy’s worlds, however, the ghosts have weapons that are very much physical and happy endings are for fairy tales. The surreal, unusual aesthetic employed by the production is not alienating, but it does ask for a lot of self-consideration. Oppression, and the hatred that comes with it, forces anyone to reconsider why they happen to be where they are, and how they got there. One can run to a better future like Chris and Kay, or hatefully leer over their young joy like Harrison.