A bright yet mournful sign towers over the set like a watchful bird of prey. The sign illuminates two words that have become synonymous with the death of dreams: Lorraine Motel. It was at the Lorraine, 35 years ago in Memphis, that civil-rights champion Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down as he stood on the balcony outside his room.
Bridgette Wimberly's new play, Saint Lucy's Eyes, which is receiving its Midwest premiere with the St. Louis Black Repertory Company, begins on April 3, 1968. The iconic King has come to Memphis to support a sanitation-workers' strike. Concurrent with his visit, in a shadowy rundown apartment near the Lorraine, an anonymous woman (known only by the generic pseudonym of Grandma) provides a more immediate kind of support.
Grandma is a well-intentioned, if highly illegal, abortionist. Although she is the first to admit that the grim procedure she renders is "no day at the beach," Grandma fervently believes in the goodness of what's she's doing. She's allowing young girls to retrieve their lives and to take advantage of the new opportunities that King's civil-rights movement has opened up. Nothing would please Grandma more than to think that her young clients might one day become lawyers.
Act 2 jumps ahead twelve years, to November 4, 1980, the day Ronald Reagan overwhelmingly defeated President Jimmy Carter in his bid for re-election. Grandma -- who is now old enough to merit her appellation -- is going to vote for the very first time. But first she must tend to yet another client, who has checked into Room 306 of the Lorraine, the same room in which King....
Hold on a minute. There's something amiss here. Or perhaps I should say "a-myth," because this premise cannot be accepted as reality. Although the Lorraine remained open until 1982, Room 306 was closed immediately after King's assassination.
If the play is not realism, is it perhaps metaphor? What does it mean that the site where a murdered martyr breathed his last is also the lair of an abortionist? And, after having created a situation in which the characters are eyewitnesses to history, why does the play give these momentous events such short shrift? Why is emphasis instead laid on the obscure St. Lucy, whose eyes were plucked out by her torturers and then miraculously restored? Is the playwright suggesting that Grandma, like King Lear, is blind to what's happening in front of her very eyes? The air here is thick -- not only with smoke from the looting that followed King's murder but with a striving for symbolism that seems to be beyond the playwright's grasp.
Theatergoers who revel in symbolism will find in Saint Lucy's Eyes a veritable feast. But those who yearn for such fundamentals as dramatic conflict or developed characters would do well to remember the truism about feast or famine.
Nor does the production, directed by Ron Himes, help clarify the murkiness. Early in Act 1, as Grandma straddles a kitchen chair like a weary cowpoke, Linda Kennedy once again displays her remarkable ability to immerse herself in a role. But the truth will out: There's precious little role to immerse oneself in. The result is a curiously muted performance. As Grandma's sanitation-worker husband, Dennis Lebby endures a similar problem. Lebby is a delicious actor who likes to gnaw on a role like a dog with a bone. But here there's nothing to chew on. One discerns an unintended irony in his line about "making the most of a bad situation."
It is left to Myah Maedell, who appears in Act 2, to finally bring the play to life. She does so by overpowering the text. Playing a high-strung pregnant woman, Maedell refuses to get bogged down in metaphors or allegory; she's in pain, and she forces that pain on everyone in the theater. Thank you.
Despite these reservations, this production will linger long in the memory -- not for anything that was said onstage but because of one haunting image. That Lorraine Motel sign looms eerily over Saint Lucy's Eyes like an all-seeing eye, an all-too-clear symbol of promise unrealized. The stories that sign could tell -- alas, they aren't told here.