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“Luck of the Irish” is a triumph for Next Theatre Company. It is a production that not only serves its excellent source material well, but elevates it, with focused direction and a talented, dedicated, cast.
While plenty of moments leave the audience gasping for breath, this production eschews showiness and instead cuts straight to the bone.
Race and class differences are front and center in this drama, a story conceived by playwright Kirsten Greenidge on the discovery of how her grandparents came to own their house. They did it through the practice of “ghost-buying,” in which African Americans used to pay white folks to buy their houses for them. The play illuminates a forgotten – for some – aspect of Jim Crow-style discrimination that still festered nearly a century after the Civil War.
In fact, a Chicago Reader article included in the playbill describes “racial steering” (in which blacks and whites were nudged toward opposite ends of town) in Evanston by real estate agents in 1989 – a recent, glaring example of segregation in our own backyards.
The story introduces us to two generations of a family separated by time, but not by struggle. It is the 1950s, and financially successful African American couple Lucy Taylor (Mildred Marie Langford) and her husband, Rex (Andre Teamer), aspire to buy a house in an upper-class, all-white suburb of Boston. To help them secure their mortgage, a mutual friend introduces them to Joe Donovan (Chris Rickett) and his wife, Patty Anne (Cora Vander Broek).
The working-class Donovans, desperate for money, accept the Taylors’ offer in an awkward meeting between the two couples. Joe earnestly, but ignorantly,
tries to bridge racial gaps, hoping to become friends with the Taylors. Patty Anne, however, is envious of the Taylors’ wealth and despises the other couple. She insists there is an “order” to things – that whites should have more of a right to get a leg up than blacks. This leads to a generations-long grudge against the Taylors.
In the 2000s, Hannah (Lily Mojekwu of the Next’s “Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter”), the Taylors’ granddaughter, and her husband, Rich (Austin Talley), are the third generation
of Taylors to live in the house. After 50 years, the neighborhood is still predominately white. Joe (Walter Brody as the older Mr. Donovan) and Patty Anne (Margaret Kusterman as the older Mrs. Donovan) stop by to inform Hannah and Rich that they still hold the mortgage title and would like “their” house back, now that Lucy has passed away.
Director Damon Kiely does an outstanding job intertwining the two narratives, past and present, with virtually the entire play taking place outside the house in question, and guides his ensemble to remarkable heights. Lily Mojekwu’s stoned rant about motherhood and Mildred Marie Langford’s scathing argument with Cora Vander Broek are only a couple of superbly acted scenes, in a play full of them, that also bring the trials and tribulations of motherhood and raising a family into an already complex and unflinchingly truthful play.
Philosopher George Santayana said, “To know your future you must know your past,” and the distillation of that idea is what makes “Luck of the Irish” such an important play. The excellent production created by the Next Theatre Company is all the more reason to see it.
“Luck of the Irish” runs through Feb. 23 at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St. Tickets can be purchased at nexttheatre.org orl 847-475-1875 x2. The play runs just over two hours with a 15-minute intermission.