Adrienne Kennedy is brilliant.
She will make you weep.
Her first new play in a decade, “He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box,” packs a devastating emotional wallop.
The just-opened play is making its world premiere at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center in the Brooklyn Cultural District.
It is a searing work about segregation, sex, violence and a pair of seriously star-crossed 17-year-old lovers from small-town Georgia in 1941.
Kennedy, whom the New York Times has called “one of the finest living American playwrights,” delivers a breathtaking evocation of the Deep South in the grip of Jim Crow with her tale of Kay and Chris.
When the play begins, Kay is standing beside a railing at the top of a stairwell at her boarding school, gazing down at a school play that’s in progress. For a moment, you are reminded of Juliet on her famous balcony. Then, down below, her Romeo appears, namely Chris.
As you soon discover, biracial Kay, played by Juliana Canfield, is a motherless child.
Her dead mother was black and 15 years old. Her father was white and rich.
Not long after Kay was born, her mother shot herself in the head. Or did she?
Most of the black people in Montefiore, Georgia, think Kay’s father killed her mother – and kept her heart in a green glass box.
Chris, played by Tom Pecinka, is white. He is motherless, too. He has just come from his mama’s funeral.
Chris’ father is rich, one of the biggest landowners in southern Georgia, in fact.
Dear Old Dad has Nazi friends in Germany. He has three children whose mothers were black. He is the “architect of the town’s segregation,” Kennedy writes in her stage directions for the play.
In their initial scene together, Kay agrees to marry Chris.
Musings full of pain and perplexity
After that, they spend the rest of the play until the very end on separate parts of the stage, composing letters to each other that they speak as monologues.
Their monologues are musings full of pain and perplexity about their parents, which Canfield and Pecinka turn into mesmerizing theatre.
Kay and Chris are separated because she’s at Atlanta University and he has headed to New York City to become an actor. He’s in his dressing room at an amateur production of “Bitter Sweet,” a Noel Coward play that, by the way, is about star-crossed lovers.
At one point, Pecinka creates a particularly poignant moment by singing the song “Dear Little Café” from “Bitter Sweet.”
Coward’s play was turned into a 1940 movie starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Kay and Chris had both seen it back home in Georgia, sitting in separate, segregated parts of the movie theatre.
They have decided that when the war is over, they will go to Paris together, just like the characters in “Bitter Sweet.”
Echoes of 16th-century bloodshed
Throughout the play, there’s a third person on stage with Kay and Chris.
He’s sitting there even before “He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box” begins.
He’s actually a mannequin, painted ghost-white and dressed in a man’s suit.
In the play’s early scenes, he’s like the proverbial elephant in the room. His presence, though unacknowledged, can’t be ignored.
He seems like a ghostly reminder of all those white people in Montefiore who will be outraged by the young couple’s plans to wed.
In due course, the mannequin’s identity is revealed. He’s a stand-in for Chris’ father, Harrison Aherne.
The actor who plays Chris also plays Harrison Aherne by speaking the elder character’s lines and moving the mannequin around a bit.
Pecinka and the mannequin interact in a pas-de-deux that’s arrestingly odd – and riveting to watch.
Most of Harrison Aherne’s lines in “He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box” come from Christopher Marlowe’s late 16th-century play, “The Massacre at Paris.”
Pecinka reads some of them from a book as a clue to the audience that they are drawn from literature of old.
The lines are menacing and terrible. You are right to be frightened by them.
“The Massacre at Paris” is about French Catholics’ slaughter of thousands of Protestant Huguenots in 1572 and the French nobility’s use of this outbreak of religious warfare as a pretext to conspire murderously against one another.
The massacre occurred after the marriage of Huguenot leader Henry of Navarre to Margaret of Valois, the Catholic sister of King Charles IX of France.
An important voice in American theatre since the 1960s
Kennedy has been an important voice in American theatre since the early 1960s. When a new play of hers makes its debut, it’s a very big deal.
She has won Obie Awards for three of her plays starting in 1964 for “Funnyhouse of a Negro.” She also won an Obie for Lifetime Achievement.
Over the years, she has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, been a visiting professor at Harvard and Berkeley and been commissioned to write plays for Jerome Robbins and Juilliard and numerous other theatres.
“He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box” is directed by Evan Yionoulis, who helmed an award-winning revival of Kennedy’s play “Ohio State Murders” for Theatre for a New Audience in 2007.
Canfield and Pecinka are both Yale School of Drama grads who studied with Yionoulis.
Canfield plays a recurring role in “Succession,” an upcoming HBO series. Pecinka has appeared in Shakespeare in the Park and other Off-Broadway productions.
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Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA) is staging “He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box” by renowned playwright Adrienne Kennedy.
The play runs through Feb. 11.
TFANA’s venue, Polonsky Shakespeare Center, is located at 262 Ashland Place in Fort Greene.