This powerful new play is sometimes hard to watch.
Adrienne Kennedy’s “He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box,” now playing at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Fort Greene, is a period piece, set mostly in Montefiore, Ga., in 1941, but it feels terrifyingly of the moment. The details — the Jim Crow South, a Negro boarding school, the rapidly intensifying World War II, the excitement of running away to New York City to “go on the stage” — come from the past, but under the elegant direction of Evan Yionoulis, the play makes you feel like the corrosive, inescapable legacy of racism has never been more present.
It tells the simplest of stories: small-town boy meets small-town girl, they run away together to embrace their destiny in the Big City, life intervenes, and the relationship ends tragically. But the boy, Chris (played by Tom Pecinka), is the white son of one of the town’s most prominent landowners, and the girl, Kay (Juliana Canfield), is the illegitimate daughter of a black woman and a different prominent white citizen, so their story bears the weight of the town’s racial history, and that of their families.
Chris’s father, the literal architect of the segregation policies and landscape of the town, is represented only by an eerie, omnipresent mannequin, which also stands in for the rest of the town’s white elders. Chris and Kay are alone on stage, but their relationship is built out of the stories of their pasts, including Chris’s three black half-siblings — his father’s children by three different black women — and Kay’s mother, who suffers a brutal death. And as much as they — and we in 21st century America — try to escape the past, they are dragged back down by the worst things in them.
Pecinka and Canfield capture the strength and gravity of what Chris and Kay are trying to do, but they are allowed only the most fragile hope before their brutal fate. They are strangers trying to find a way out from the crushing pressure of the past — and it feels like they, and we, may never succeed. The play is well done, but it also soul-crushingly sad.
“He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box” at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center (262 Ashland Pl. between Lafayette Avenue and Fulton Street in Fort Greene, tfana.org). Playing through Feb. 11, Tue–Fri at 7:30 pm, Sat–Sun at 2 pm and 7:30 pm. $90–$100 ($20 students).