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Figment with pigment: Lee and Skraastad in StageWorks’ Brutal Imagination.

The Land of Make-Believe
By James Yeara

Brutal Imagination
By Cornelius Eady, Directed by Laura Margolis

StageWorks, North Pointe Cultural Center, Kinderhook, through Sept. 22

Susan B. Smith (Danielle Skraastad) kneels before the 6-foot-long rectangular pool of water downstage center then slowly recoils from it. Mr. Zero (Harrison Lee) stands slightly upstage left of Smith, letting the full horror of her handiwork sink into her and into the audience. Pity, horror, contempt, sympathy, anger and longing seem to play between them. No one speaks. Mr. Zero’s last line, “She only has me, after she removes her hands from our ears,” hangs in the mind between the sound of the waves splashing and the sight of the shifting blue-green light of the cyclorama upstage. The pair are enclosed by the 6-foot-tall white picket fence as if in prison or a cemetery. For 30 seconds there are only stares and silence, then blackness.

Brutal Imagination continues what has been a string of September StageWorks hits. As with Wit in 2000 and The Laramie Project in 2001, the Laura Margolis-directed Brutal Imagination is one of the finest productions presented in the region this year. Well-acted and well-staged, Brutal Imagination shows what an Equity troupe can do when they challenge themselves and an audience. This 67-minute, poetic one-act is as trenchant, engaging and entertaining a play as a theater lover could hope to find. New, thoughtful and socially relevant, this is a production that should not be missed, especially after the timid summer productions in the region.

The playwright’s conceit here is inspired: Playwright Cornelius Eady creates as a character the black man whom Susan Smith initially blamed for carjacking her Mazda Protégé and taking her two children with it. Smith is the South Carolina mother who eventually was convicted of drowning her two sons in 1994, and the play, like last year’s Laramie Project, uses the actual reports of the nine-day investigation into the carjacking, the numerous sightings of the imaginary black man in the “toboggan-type knit hat,” and the transcript of the subsequent trial to weave a tale on multiple levels.

Brutal Imagination unfolds as Mr. Zero tries to explain why Smith created him—“If I am alive, then so are they [her 3-year-old and 14-month-old sons]”—and why society was so eager to believe in him: There were numerous “eyewitnesses,” as well as a convenience-store surveillance tape that was said to show Mr. Zero. For nine days, Smith played out her lie, praying with her church, gaining sympathy, until she cracked under repeated police questioning.

Brutal Imagination never cracks, however. Fliers fitting the generic profile—“black male in his 40s, wearing jeans, a flannel shirt and a toboggan-type knit hat”—are nailed to the white picket fence around the stage. Mr. Zero flirts with Smith one moment, dances with her, then denounces her, moving her every minute closer to confession and epiphany.

Into the fabric of the play, Eady weaves the case of Bostonian Charles Stuart, who killed his wife and shot himself, blaming a black man whom he alleged had robbed them. In a stunning series of characterizations, Eady has Mr. Zero play out other fictional blacks who serve the dominant culture: Uncle Tom, Aunt Jemima, Steppin Fetchit, and Staggerlee. Each contributes to Smith’s need for the fantastical Mr. Zero and for society’s need to believe Smith.

Skraastad and Lee allow Smith and the multiple characters Mr. Zero creates to seep through them. They allow an audience to empathize and understand the characters, a rarity anywhere. Their performances are not the mannered, labored, showy affairs that would pass for “acting” in lesser hands. Each actor handles the frequent verse passages with the same ease they do the prose lines, rendering Brutal Imagination both realistic and fantastic in the same heartbeat. Margolis’ deft direction keeps Brutal Imagination vibrant, skillful and as striking as the production’s final image. StageWorks has added another unique and worthy production to its impressive history.

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