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Attorney Jack Lawson (Timothy Deenihan) interrogates his clerk Susan (Shelley Thomas) about her handling of a client in the Northern Stage production of David Mamet’s “Race.”
Although it never gets to court, David Mamet’s “Race” plays like a taut courtroom drama. And Northern Stage’s excellent production, which opened Friday at Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, despite plenty of humorous moments, proved riveting — and unexpected.
In one of Mamet’s most mainstream plays, Charles Strickland has been charged with raping a black woman in a hotel room. Although Strickland and the woman have been having an affair, she claims rape. Strickland is at a disadvantage because he is well known, wealthy — and white.
So Strickland approaches the law firm of Jack Lawson and Henry Brown, apparently because Brown is black and Lawson is ruthless. The two lawyers are reluctant to take the case because, regardless of whether Strickland is innocent or guilty, it could easily damage the law firm.
Both lawyers point out that, 50 years ago, Strickland would be innocent until proven guilty, but in this day of liberal white guilt, he is guilty until proven innocent.
Fortunately, neither lawyer is encumbered with any politically correct tendencies and they are only interested in success. What ensues is the building of a case to get Strickland off — but, at each step of the way, they are stymied by the truth.
Add to this, two wild cards — a client who wants to explain himself to the press and a young black law clerk who resents the client — and they are in trouble. The lawyers’ own weaknesses contribute to an exciting and unexpected climax.
Unlike many of Mamet’s plays, “Race” isn’t so much angry as it is intense in how it forces self-examination of motivation. And, although it is brutally frank in its language and discussion of race and sex, it’s never brutal. “Race” is tough stuff, but deeply rewarding in Northern Stage’s production, a coproduction with Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany, N.Y. Deftly directed by Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, Capital Rep’s producing artistic director, it benefited from an excellent cast. Only the finale felt a little synthetic, but that’s quibbling.
Timothy Deenihan, in a quite dimensional performance, was tough as nails as the veteran attorney Lawson, until his Achilles’ heel is revealed. Although the part isn’t nearly as well drawn, Brown is given a most human side by Kevin Craig West.
Shelly Thomas also gave real dimension to the clerk Susan, who seems naïve but may, in fact, be quite cunning. Wynn Harmon was the perfect fool as the country clubber Strickland, another part limited by the writing.
The stylish physical production, matching Northern Stage’s best, benefited from an elegant set by Ken Goldstein, lighting by Deborah Constantine and appropriate costumes by Carolyn Walker.
Mamet’s “Race” is more about people than race, and the Northern Stage production nailed it.
Northern Stage presents David Mamet’s “Race,” a co-production with Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany, N.Y., March 6-24 at Briggs Opera House, Main Street in White River Junction. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, plus a 2 p.m. matinee Sunday March 14. For tickets or information, call 296-7000, or go online to www.northernstage.org.
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