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Common Ground still resonates

by Jules Becker
Thursday Jun 30, 2022

The cast of the Huntington Theatre Company world premiere "Common Ground Revisited" (Courtesy T. Charles Erickson<br>
The cast of the Huntington Theatre Company world premiere "Common Ground Revisited" (Courtesy T. Charles Erickson

A fresh Cherry Orchard

Common Ground Revisited, world premiere by Huntington Theatre Company at Calderwood Pavilion, through July 3. or 617-266-0800or 617-695-6955

A great non-fiction work deserves a great reconsideration, and "Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families" should be no exception. After all, J. Anthony Lukas' 1985 iconic prizewinner (Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award) continues to resonate with its still timely insights about racism and educational inequality in the Hub. "Common Ground Revisited," Kirsten Greenidge's perceptive play (based in part on and inspired by the book) comes close to such greatness as it serves notice that the problems that Luk0630THEATEas detailed in the Boston of the 1960's and 1970's sadly remain an ongoing—if sometimes more subtle—challenge today. Under Melia Bensussen's taut direction, a crack Huntington ensemble brings the book's families to vivid life in this important world premiere.

The families in question, as readers of the book well know, are the African-American Twymans, the Irish Catholic McGoffs and the middle class Divers. If very different, the families sometimes do have 'common ground.' The Twymans and the McGoffs share working class concerns. The Twymans and the Divers work to combat racism. When busing looks to impact the latter and their son, however, the Divers leave the South End for Newton. Hatemongers like Louise D. Hicks not only make understanding and common ground distant achievements but also fire up deep-seated animosity in the McGoffs. Greenidge smartly has the families, Lukas' book and the search for common ground take center stage in a lively contemporary classroom lesson calling attention to Boston racist factors today as well as at the time of Judge Garrity's 1974 desegregation of Hub public schools with busing.

Along the way, "Common Ground Revisited" warns that "All Americans face the consequences of inaction." At the same time, Greenidge's play notes that Lukas' book is not the only one. Not finding any facile solutions, the playwright suggests various face-offs or encounters between a black student and a white one. The remarkably versatile ensemble—Marianna Bassham, Kadahj Bennett, Elle Borders, Matthew Bretschneider, Shanae Burch, Amanda Collins, Stacy Fischer, Michael Kaye, Shannon Lamb, Karen MacDonald, Maurice Emmanuel Parent and Omar Robinson—play students, teachers, parents, and politicians with equal persuasiveness.

One distressing 1976 incident—in which a white racist weaponizes an American flag against black lawyer Theodore C. Landsmark—may call to mind the use of American flags as weapons during the January 6 insurrection. This incident could have been a provocatively disturbing close to the play. Still, "Common Ground Revisited" will have theatergoers of all ages searching for answers that effectively combat racism in Boston and countrywide.

The Orchard, Arlekin Players, live online and on stage at Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York, through July 3.

Trust Igor Golyak to turn Chekhov's "Cherry Orchard" into a resonant contemporary comment on trusting workers, self-absorbed employers and profit-motivated property buyers. In the Arlekin Players' "The Orchard"—live online and in person at the Baryshnikov Arts Center—Mikhail Baryshnikov plays devoted longtime servant Firs with such intensity and pathos that this seemingly secondary character becomes a veritable icon of kindness and trust. Baryshnikov once again also captures playwright Chekhov's grandeur and vulnerability in an outer stretch. Golyak rightly prizes his association with the great actor-dancer, and Baryshnikov continues to prove himself as strong an actor as a ballet principal.

By contrast, Jessica Hecht's flamboyant Madame Ranevskaya captures the estate owner's flair and fire without sacrificing a subtext of insensitivity to Firs. Nael Nacer—always a powerful actor—turns in a definitive performance as conflicted worker turned real estate force Lopatkin. Nacer brilliantly captures Lopatkin's ambivalence as he moves between nostalgia and business with Ranevskaya.

This critic viewed the online option. An interactive auction related to Lopatkin's dialogue about the auction of the estate and orchard. Still, it seemed somewhat gimmicky. Even so, Arlekin Players' lyrical "The Orchard" bears fresh theatrical fruit.