The two 17-year-olds are in love. Yet Chris (Tom Pecinka) is the son of the white patriarch from his hometown in Georgia, and Kay (Juliana Canfield) is the mixed-race daughter of another white man and a 15-year-old black woman who died shortly after giving birth, having run away to Ohio. Did Kay’s mother kill herself, or was she killed? Did Kay’s father really bring her mother’s heart back in a box? These are mysteries, not just to the audience, but to the characters in “He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box,” Adrienne Kennedy’s hallucinatory, haunted and hazy romance, her first play in almost a decade.
Those who saw the recent production at the Signature of Kennedy’s first play, the 1964 Funnyhouse of a Negro, should realize that her work cannot be summed up by anything as straightforward as a plot — that even the most accessible of her plays present a lyrical collage of elements from theater of the absurd, Greek tragedy, Tennessee Williams, Hollywood movies, and the autobiographical rage and humiliations of a black woman born in the 1930s. “He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box” is only 50 minutes long, but so fragmentary and impressionistic that it feels longer. Chris and Kay don’t so much talk with one another, even when face to face, as alternate monologues, telling some ugly stories of their families and the segregated town that Chris’ grandfather built.
Before the play began, one of the ushers at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center directed me to the scale model of the Southern town of Montefiore, Georgia in 1941, which is its primary setting. I saw that the model, which was in the back of the auditorium, was all in shades of grey and that there was a tiny statue of a Confederate general outside the train station. But it took a second usher to point out to me the tiny little sign on the door to the station – “Whites Only.”
As in that model, there are dark hidden truths in Kennedy’s play, which are easy to miss. An obvious example is the title, which comes from the Brothers Grimm. A more obscure example: Chris talks about his father, a segregationist and white supremacist who sired several “Nigra children,” taking him on a trip to Berlin and visiting friends along “Wannsee Lake.” The Wannsee Villa is where the Nazis came up with the genocidal “Final Solution” for the Jews. There is a specific mystery here – what was his father doing there? — but it’s not too much of a stretch to see the playwright suggesting parallels between two horrors.
Director Evan Yionoulis turns this unforgiving memory play into a compelling aesthetic experience. Montana Blanco’s costumes recall the South at its most gentile, Christopher Barreca’s set focuses on a steep staircase, that in the right lighting might suggest Gone with the Wind, but is more at home in Hitchcock. Donald Holder’s lighting design and Austin Switser’s projection design offer some surprises. The two characters turn in credible performances, no mean task. And the show even makes the most of a chilling manikin.
There is a climax of a sort in “He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box” when Chris, who has moved to New York in hopes of becoming an actor, sings Dear Little Café, a song by Noel Coward from a 1940 movie musical starring Nelson Eddy and Jeannette McDonald. The title of the movie is Bitter Sweet. It’s a movie the two would-be lovers Chris and Kay both liked, and its title sums up the best in such a time and place that they could hope for.
“He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box,” Is on stage at at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn through February 11, 2018