Women's Theatre Project Adds Men for “Chitterling Heights” and Puts out a Memorable Show

This posthumous world premiere by counterculture chronicler Ann Morrissette Davidon is an ambitious study of cultural oppression in a changing world. It’s set in 1962 in a secluded estate above the Hudson River, where playwright Lorraine Hansberry (Karen Stephens), still reaping the rewards of her groundbreaking Raisin in the Sun, has invited novelist and social activist James Baldwin (André L. Gainey) for a critique of her latest play. He’s brought along a protégé, bubbly Southern belle Laura Lee (Kaitlyn O’Neill), who catches the attention of Lorraine’s husband, Bob (Sean Muldoon), exacerbating the fractures in a marriage that already seems in its final throes.

Conversing over food, drinks, and Hansberry’s words, the racially split cast addresses just about every divide in America, as applicable now as they were then: skin color, sexuality, gender, class, religion, and culture, each person striving to transcend his or her prescribed identity. It’s to Davidon’s credit that the characters always feel like flesh and blood and not mouthpieces for the minorities they represent.

Chitterling Heights marks the first time, after 26 productions, that the Women’s Theatre Project has featured male cast members. Although Gainey is a pitch-perfect James, Muldoon makes an unconvincing Bob, looking and sounding wooden and uncomfortable in his intimate moments with Lorraine. Stephens, on the other hand, wholly transforms into the insecure playwright, ferreting out the hidden meanings in every sarcastic quip and slowly chipping away at her character’s fragility. It’s another winning, dynamic performance to add to a pretty flawless résumé.

The play’s flaws require Band-Aids, not drastic rewrites: The first act feels like an entire show, and the second act is a blip that ends on an awkward, unnecessary voice-over. But this is a solid, thought-provoking new work — and a coup for the Women’s Theatre Project.

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John Thomason
Contact: John Thomason