Amy J. Carle as Amy, the mother of Luce, played by Jerry McKinnon in “Luce” at Next Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow

“Luce,” the 34th season premiere from Next Theatre, is a devastating examination of culture, racial stereotypes and trust between parents and their kids.

Director Keira Fromm’s staging of playwright JC Lee’s honest, incisive work is a remarkable, chilling cautionary tale of what happens when there is a communication breakdown within a family, and of the blind assumptions parents hold when it comes to their children.

The ensemble work here is top-notch, starting with Amy J. Carle (“The Book Thief” at Steppenwolf) as Amy, a loving, protective mother whose upper-middle class, suburban existence is about to unravel. She and her husband, Peter (Coburn Goss – “Dying City” at Next), are about to be confronted by disturbing accusations about their teenage son, Luce (Jerry McKinnon (“Leveling Up” at Steppenwolf).
 
Mr. McKinnon is superb as a highly intelligent, successful high school student-athlete. This, despite being born in an unnamed, war-torn African country, losing his parents during the madness and being adopted by white, liberal Amy and Peter. Lionized by students and his parents, Luce is the poster boy for “The American Dream.”  Right?
 
Questions about Luce’s character come to light when his teacher, Harriet (Tyla Abercrombie), meets with Amy to discuss a topic Luce chose to write about – an Eastern European terrorist – and Harriet’s subsequent search of Luce’s locker, where she finds illegal fireworks.

Peter is initially convinced that this must be some sort of football team prank, but Amy isn’t so sure. This dynamic of two parents, vacillating back and forth between labeling their son as guilty or not guilty, is played to perfection by Ms. Carle and Mr. Goss. More important to the story, their inability to effectively discuss these accusations and even their own concerns with Luce is staged with unflinching honesty and kinetic rhythm by Ms. Fromm. Further, Mr. McKinnon’s naturalist mannerisms imbue his Luce with either a rhythmic passion or a calculating menace, depending on which act the play is in.
 
In Courtney O’Neill’s precise scenic design, half of the stage shows the family kitchen containing a small, round dining table where Luce and his parents talk about their day. The other half is Harriet’s classroom.  

The two are split, symbolic of the audience’s fractured perceptions of Luce.

At home, he can do no wrong.

At school, a different side is revealed when Luce is alone with Harriet, away from the judging eyes of others.

Or is that the case?

Is Luce a passionate innocent who is sometimes too smart for his own good, or is he a cold, disenchanted young man who thinks his cultural identity is a joke but is willing to use all that goodwill he has received to his malevolent advantage?
 
A quietly devastating scene occurs in the middle of the play where Amy meets with Stephanie (Erica Murphy, astonishingly effective in such a small amount of stage time), a classmate of Luce’s, who may or may not hold the key to his true identity.
 
“I don’t think you know your son,” Stephanie quietly states.
 
From that point on, Amy is suspicious, and so is the audience.
 
Absolutely, race and cultural identity are paramount themes to be discussed here.

But, as a parent watching “Luce,” I was forced to consider all the possibilities of raising a child who could turn out to be so very different from what I had hoped.

If the world is better off with one’s  child in prison, his seemingly bright future demolished by sociopathic tendencies, what would it take for a parent to put
him there?

“Luce” runs through Nov. 9 at the Next Theatre in the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St. Tickets are available by calling 847-475-1875 ext. 2 or visiting nexttheatre.org.