Set Sophocles’ “Antigone” to the tune of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” and you get Lissa Brennan’s “For the Tree to Drop,” a dark, haunting microcosm of murder and injustice in the Deep South.
A slave, Henry (Justin Lonesome) attempts to escape his bonds and run away. Unfortunately, there is no escape for the doomed slave. He is brought down by a pack of dogs. Edgar (David Whalen) is compelled to set an example of Henry and hangs him from a tall tree yards away from the main house of his vast plantation.
Henry’s sister, Estella (Siovhan Christensen) stands vigil over the rotting corpse dangling from the tree. She forgoes her duties as a laundress in the main house and digs into the earth with her fingers, insisting on a proper burial for her brother’s body.
Another house slave, Theenie (Linda Haston), realizes that Estella’s defiance will have horrifying consequences for the other slaves at the plantation and seeks to dissuade the young girl from her course of action. Edgar is enraged by Estella’s disobedience, but cannot deter her from her mission. He is reluctant to inflict punishment on the girl. Suffice to say, he has his reasons.
From the window of the main house, Clarinda (Karen Baum), Edgar’s wife, is repulsed by Henry’s hanging body on her front lawn and wishes to aid Estella in burying him, even though it will incense her husband.
Aside from “Antigone” and Abel Meeropol’s poem (the original composition of Holiday’s song), “Strangefruit,” Brennan’s play reverberates with echoes of literary giants. It is peppered with Shakespearean references and allusions, and there is a familiar conceit from Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”
The play is a brisk 65 minute opus, with no intermission. The dialogue smolders with intensity. It’s an important piece of work. Not only because reflects on the horrors of the Antebellum era, but it pulsates with commentary on contemporary society.
Best of all, it is a play written by a local playwright performed by local actors, and it is triumphant. Proving that Pittsburgh isn’t just for sports enthusiasts anymore. There is a plethora of local talent and director Alan Stanford mines that eponymous talent expertly.
Christensen is able to go toe-to-toe with Whalen. It’s no easy feat, but she accomplishes the Herculean task with aplomb. Her performance is heart-wrenching.
Ironically, I first encountered Lonesome in a local production of “Antigone” last season at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. He is charismatic and charming as the ill-fated slave.
Haston depicts Theenie with style and grace. At first, Theenie seems to be the comic relief, but Brennan (with Haston’s help) takes the character to darker and more mysterious places.
It should go without saying, but Whalen and Baum are treasures in Pittsburgh’s burgeoning theater scene. Praising them has become redundant. Whalen is frightening as the vengeful plantation owner, and Baum is luminescent as Clarinda. It would be gauche to say that Clarinda is equally trapped by her circumstances, but there is a deep sadness behind the bored belle’s eyes. Baum executes the unspoken anguish flawlessly.
The setting is sparse, picture Cosmo Kramer’s perfect apartment (it’s all about levels). The set, however, is enhanced by Jessi Sedon-Essad’s multi-media projection design, as well as the gorgeously crafted costumes from Joan Markert.
While Twitter and Facebook buzz with trendy aphorisms like “Black Lives Matter,” Brennan is pulling back the veil and remembering a time when black lives mattered even less, and the result is a powerful, thought-provoking play. “For the Tree to Drop” reminds us that we will someday transcend our cruelty and barbarism as we inch up the evolutionary ladder. There will always be heroes and heroines who strive for a more just and egalitarian society. Someone must make the first, painful step upward.
(“For the Tree to Drop” runs through February 28 at PICT’s new downtown location, inside the Trust Arts Education Center, 805-807 Liberty Avenue, Pittsburgh)