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‘River City’ looks at Louisville with love, angst

Alas, Diana Grisanti’s “River City” could not be more topical.

The play, which earned a world premiere at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte after winning the 2013 nuVoices festival, traces racial unrest that never went away in her hometown of Louisville, Ky. – including a protest that turns into a riot after cops became aggressors.

And in the director’s note, written shortly after last month’s fiasco in Ferguson, Mo., she quotes a recent column in the Louisville Courier-Journal by the white president of the River City Fraternal Order of Police: “It is sad that there are people ... who have an irrational fear of police officers, and who pass this fear on to their young, impressionable children.”

Grisanti switches easily between the past (1968 and 1974) and the present in both acts of her thoughtful play, though the earlier scenes remain more compelling than the later ones.

In the past, a kindly nun (Polly Adkins) and a rigid priest (Tommy Foster) fight over the future of the only black student at their orphanage school, Edward Christopher (Jeremy DeCarlos). He gets a job at a radio repair shop run by civil rights activist Whitney Deeley (Jonavan Adams) and grows from a questioning boy of 14 to a self-assured young man of 20.

In the present, Edward’s pregnant daughter Mary (Kayla Carter) tries to unearth information about the father she scarcely knew via a few clues: a ripped poster, an old photo and a circular piece of metal. She gets support from husband Javier, a newly popular Latino chef (Matt Cosper), and her tolerant mother (Adkins again), who also entered into a mixed marriage.

Grisanti handles many themes: the sacrifices marriage demands, responsibility for a community when police threaten it with impunity, the danger of defining yourself or others by race, a need for family connections that doesn’t die when family members do.

But I think she’s writing mostly about the untrustworthiness of history: The more we try to grasp “truth,” the more it slips away, and the harder we cling to the bits we have.

Whitney provides a key link to Edward’s past, but he’s an unreliable narrator given to tall tales. (He says he knocked out a pre-Olympic Cassius Clay in 1955; he’d have been 16 and Clay 13, and they wouldn’t have been paired off.)

Javier creates a legend about himself that the media spreads willingly. The nun and the priest both read Edward’s file; one sees an asset to the school, one a disruptive delinquent. Edward remains a mystery to his ex-wife years after their divorce. No character has a completely clear picture of any other.

Grisanti doesn’t resolve the central dilemma of the modern story: Javier has just opened a restaurant in Chicago, where he and Mary live, but she falls under Louisville’s spell – “This city is possessing me!” – and insists they start over there. (An odd researcher played by Foster adds nothing but creepy comedy, which feels tacked on.)

Yet scenes in the past have crackling energy. Grisanti swiftly catches us up in the lives of the stubborn nun, with her affection for horse racing; the equally stubborn Whitney, who can never leave his struggling black neighborhood, no matter how business falls off; and especially Edward, for whom self-enlightenment becomes power.

DeCarlos delineates the young and older Edwards clearly, from the pitch of his voice to the cocking of his head. Adams has a presence, sometimes gentle and sometimes rough, that suggests a grandeur stunted by circumstance. In their confrontations, elusive truths about race seem closer than ever.

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