While Julie Hébert’s Tree explores race, at its heart the play examines what it means to be a family. In the play, which closes Horizon Theatre’s 2010 season, two families, the Prices, an African-American family from Chicago, and the Marcentels, a white family from Louisiana, must bring their present lives together to make sense of the past. As the play unfolds, both the characters and the audience become forced to examine what it means to be a family.
Under careful direction by Lisa Adler, Co-Artistic Director of Horizon Theatre, the play, which bounces between present reality and memory of the Jim-Crow era south, begins with Mrs. Price (Donna Biscoe) rocking in a chair, singing a French song at her home in Chicago. Soon the focus switches to Didi Marcentel (Megan Hayes), a white woman who is reading letters from Mrs. Price to her late father.
Desperate to seek answers as to why the man in the letters doesn’t match the father of her experiences, Didi travels to Chicago to find Mrs. Price and her son Leo (Geoffrey D. Williams). When she arrives, a ostensibly hostile Leo greets her and tries to thwart her discovery and keep his own past covered. Through their exchanges the mystery of Mrs. Price’s and Mr. Marcantel’s relationship reveals itself.
Coming strong off her run in Theatrical Outfit’s The Green Book, Donna Biscoe has immersed herself in the role of reticent Mrs. Price and gives a brave performance. Her portrayal of the character’s dementia evokes both shock and compassion, even when it provides laughs. The audience can’t help but be empathetic and hurt with her.
Although some of Williams’ reactions, especially to the shocking news he receives, is unmatched when compared to his other actions, he creates strong connections with his fellow cast mates. Likewise, Hayes’ Didi comes across as caricature at times, and her tenaciousness is a bit overdone, which is more the script than her acting. Despite those aspects, Hayes manages to create a relatable and sympathetic character. Appearing late in show, Joy Brunson as Leo’s daughter JJ, provides a refreshing change in the play’s dynamic.
In between interactions with the rest of the cast, Biscoe delivers many monologues in the form of the letters that she wrote to Mr. Marcantel. With each letter, Sound Designer Thom Jenkin’s soft music and gentle lake sounds give the scenes a whimsical feeling while Mary Parker’s lighting design matches the mood of the letters. Whether recounting articles she wrote for the school publication Panther Prints or her feelings of longing and loneliness, Biscoe takes the audience to a different time and place in the mind of Mrs. Price.
Seemingly busy at first glance, Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay’s set functions perfectly for scenes that take place upstairs, downstairs or outside of the house. The beautiful tree behind the house that serves as a part of Mrs. Price’s room adds to emotion shown as she fondly remembers times at the lake and climbing trees with Mr. Marcantel.
Sprinkled with the right amount of humorous and heartfelt moments, Tree offers audiences a mysterious and sincere exploration of family. Unflinchingly real, each cast member’s performance helps plant seeds of thought that audience members take away from the theater. Tree plays at Horizon Theatre through October 16, for tickets and more information please visit Horizon Theatre’s website.
– A. Wesley