Review: ‘He Brought Her Heart Back,’ Adrienne Kennedy’s Beautiful Nightmare


Works like her “Funnyhouse,” “A Movie Star Has To Star in Black and White” and “June and Jean in Concert” seem to take place inside their creator’s mind, at the point where conscious anxiety bleeds into troubling dreams. “He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box,” which has been directed with haunting lyricism by Evan Yionoulis for Theater for a New Audience, offers a historical, wider-lens view of the same terrain. Occupying a mere 45 minutes of stage time (Ms. Kennedy’s favorite dramatic form is the short fugue), it nonetheless seems to stretch and bend through generations of conflict.

This is not to suggest that Ms. Kennedy, at 86, has made new concessions to narrative conventions or expository clarity. True, a bare description of her latest subject — a romance between a girl of mixed race and the white scion of the family that rules the town in Georgia where they live — brings to mind a century’s worth of purplish novels about forbidden love.

Ms. Kennedy is susceptible to the pulpy appeal of such fare, and equally contemptuous of it. And as the play’s two characters, Kay (Juliana Canfield) and Chris (Tom Pecinka), tell their respective, overlapping stories, they seem steeped in a sentimental twilight.

Yet often what they say is unyieldingly hard, or else feverish and fragmentary in the way of half-remembered nightmares. In detailed descriptions delivered with perfect, paradoxically languid urgency by Ms. Canfield and Mr. Pecinka, they map the town where they grew up. We learn about its best houses, its streets, its schools and the racially divided town plan, devised by Chris’s father.


Ms. Canfield (as Kay) and Mr. Pecinka (as Chris) were the only two actors on stage, though a cadaverous dummy, at right, stood in for Chris’s father. Credit Emon Hassan for The New York Times

We also hear accounts, firsthand and distortingly recycled, of their family histories. And while Chris’s is cushioned in an affluence that Kay has never known, they both carry a legacy of racially mixed sexual relationships. Kay’s father was white, and her mother, who is black, died not long after giving birth to her at 15 — possibly a suicide, possibly a murder victim.

Chris’s father, Harrison Aherne, is both an architect of segregation and a man with black mistresses, by whom he has had several children. He has lovingly overseen the creation of the graveyard in which these women and their families can be buried.

Kay and Chris grew up watching each other from a fascinated distance. T he play follows their tentative courtship, from the eve of Chris’s departure to New York City (he hopes to become an actor) to the moment of America’s entry into World War II. Human and historic events turn out to be intertwined in unexpected ways.

It is important to note that while “Box” is a two-character play (three, if you count Chris’s father, who is represented onstage by a cadaverous dummy), it is not really a dialogue. As Chris and Kay relate the facts and myths of their genealogies, it seems as if they are not connecting through shared history but pushing themselves into ever greater isolation.

As in most of Ms. Kennedy’s work, the narrative is delivered in a kaleidoscope of shards. These take the form of letters, recollections of conflicting tales told by family members, itemized descriptions of a train station, a savage moment from the Brothers Grimm (which gives the play its title), wistful period songs and lines from two very different shows — Noël Coward’s operetta “Bitter Sweet” and Christopher Marlowe’s lurid revenge tragedy “The Massacre at Paris.”

Only Ms. Kennedy, perhaps, could gracefully balance such disparate works as mood-defining reference points of equal weight. And while the implicit connections between Chris’s father and Nazi Germany might feel overly contrived in a more traditional play, here they become natural echoes in a nightmare that enwraps the whole world.

The physical production may be the most ravishing and organic that a Kennedy dreamscape has ever been given, starting with Christopher Barreca’s weathered wooden set, a synecdoche for the miniature model of the town the audience passes on the way to its seats.

Donald Holder’s lighting both anchors this place with projected words and blueprints (Austin Switser is the video designer) and sets it swirling into giddy decomposition. Montana Levi Blanco’s costumes and Justin Ellington’s subliminal music and sound design match and extend the same sensibility.

The stage, by the way, is divided by a long staircase. It looks both solid and spectral, daunting in the way a child might perceive a steep flight of steps. It whispers of both the fantasy of escape and the reality of captivity.

Even in stark retrospect, these conflicting elements do not rule out each other. In setting up camp in their intersection, Ms. Kennedy remains one the harshest — and most invaluable — of the American theater’s conflicted sentimentalists.

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