The last thing Louisianan Didi Marcantel expects to find soon after the death of her father is a bunch of letters written to him over forty-years ago … love letters addressed to a woman he knew while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. Even more surprising is the discovery that her Caucasian father’s one-time lover was African American—back in the days when Jim Crow laws made interracial relationships not only “improper” but illegal as well. Tripling the effect of this surprise is the news that the union between Ray Marcantel and his beloved Jessalyn produced a child, Didi’s now 46-year-old half-brother Leo Price, father of Didi’s 20ish half-niece JJ.  

The unearthing of this family she didn’t even know she had sets Didi out on a quest for the truth in Julie Hébert’s exquisite new play Tree, now opening [Inside] The Ford Theatre’s 2009-2010 season in an absolutely superb production directed by the ever amazing Jessica Kubzansky.

When Didi arrives unannounced at Leo’s Chicago home, the handsome restaurant chef lets her know in no uncertain terms that her presence in his life is unwanted.  He also informs her that her father’s one-time lover is still alive and residing upstairs, a victim of dementia, her mind lucid one second and befuddled the very next. Cared for by her son and granddaughter, the retired schoolteacher passes the hours singing plaintive Cajun songs and reliving the past, occasionally crying out to Leo that she thinks she’s going to die, that “I’m dead.  I’ve done died. I believe I’m dead.  I’m not crazy.  I’m dead. When you comin’ home?”

Grown-up tomboy Didi informs Leo that she has letters written by his mother going back to when Jessalyn was a junior in high school. “She’ll have no memory of your father,” Leo cautions Didi, who reminds him, “Your father too.”  Claiming that she has no ulterior motive in coming to Chicago, Didi informs her half-brother that she simply wants to learn about her family.  No, replies Leo, if she’s come North to Chicago, it’s because she’s trying to get over her guilt and avoid her grief. “All I know is that I want to have a relationship with you,” insists Didi, to which Leo icily replies that he considers her “a sorry footnote” in his mother’s otherwise upstanding life.  Not about to take “No” for an answer, Didi tells her brother that nothing he says or does to her is going to make her give up, not after having been kicked out of her own house three times and still, every time, returning home more outspoken and rebellious than ever.

Another reason for Didi’s trip north is to find out whether Jessalyn has kept the letters Ray wrote to her, and again she refuses to accept Leo’s refusal. Managing to secure a private meeting with Jessalyn, Didi introduces herself as Ray Marcantel’s daughter, and when Jessalyn learns that Ray had died of a heart attack, she replies with a sad smile, “Well, at least he went quickly, not like me.” 

As Didi learns more about the 19-year-old Marine so head-over-heels with the beautiful Jessalyn that he wrote her love letter after love letter, she finds herself with an increasing need to understand how the decent teenager who dreamed of a life with Jessalyn could have turned into the hard, uncaring man she knew as her father.

Hébert’s beautiful play works on so many levels, as a story about two siblings who discover a connection they never knew they had, as a love story between two hopelessly optimistic teens, and as a mystery story which unravels as Didi discovers bit by bit the life that her father had before he even met her mother. 

Tree is also a very personal look at the tragedy of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, whose victims know in their lucid moments that they are slowly and inexorably losing their minds, and realize the pain and suffering they are causing their loved ones.  At certain moments Jessalyn is back in her childhood, at others she’s talking to her son with an absolute awareness of who and where she is. In one scene, she’s an elderly mother yelling at her adult son, and at the next minute the person she sees in front of her is a student she’s in the midst of punishing. In another scene, she’s deep into reliving memories of her love affair with Ray, then suddenly asks, as if meeting Didi for the first time, “How is Ray?”

What makes Hébert’s play very much not a downer, despite its lead character’s illness, is the absolutely wonderful character the playwright has created in Jessalyn and the absolutely wonderful performance Sloan Robinson gives in the role.  Jessalyn is so charming and funny and winning in her lucid moments that we understand why her son and granddaughter have become her willing caretakers.  Robinson has a tough assignment in Jessalyn.  She must change moods on a dime, go from being an innocent young girl to a foul-mouthed homebound patient to a gracious Louisiana lady.  She has many heartbreaking moments, acted to perfection, none more so that the scene in which Jessalyn goes from a child’s naughty delight at swearing to wracking sobs over memories too painful to bear.

Jacqueline Wright is every bit as splendid as Didi, her performance a blend of intensity and bravado and naked need, and she too has a moment in which she breaks down in sobs that is both highly affecting to watch and an impressive acting feat as well.  As he did in The Fountain’s Miss Julie, Chuma Gault once again proves himself one of our finest stage actors.  (Since Gault is a good ten years younger than Leo, my guess is that he blew away more “senior” competition when auditioning for the role.)  Gault’s scenes with Wright positively crackle, whether the two siblings are getting smashed on gin and listening to Etta James’ “At Last,” or Leo is teasing his half-sister about her seemingly obvious gayness, which she continues to deny vehemently until …  No, I’m not going to spoil the surprise. 

Completing the cast in the role of JJ is the exquisite Tessa Thompson, winner of last year’s Ovation award as one-quarter of the ensemble of Stupid Kids. What a treat it is to have this superb (and very busy) young TV and film actress back on stage.  Thompson’s JJ provides a breath of fresh air and occasional voice of reason amidst the intensity of the emotions which surround her.  (When she meets Didi, her response is an amused, “So, you’re my aunt?  Crazy.”)

Certainly credit for these four brilliant performances must be shared with Kubzansky, whose direction is invisible and seamless.  

Tree is the kind of play that every East Coast elitist who’s ever seen a crappy rent-a-theater West Coast vanity production and decreed all L.A. theater third-rate should see, and then be forced to eat his or her words (and hat).  In addition to its acting and direction, the production merits an A+ for the work of its extraordinary design team. Brian Sidney Bembridge’s set and lighting are as beautiful to look at as they are imaginative and ingenious.  [Inside] The Ford’s stage doesn’t allow for a full two-story house, so Bembridge creates an upstairs bedroom in just enough space for two-thirds of a bed to sit, the other third hanging precariously over the first floor. Whether this is an intentional metaphor for the precarious state of Jessalyn’s mind or merely a clever design solution, it’s quite wondrous, as are the fern-draped bayou trees that suddenly appear in the background whenever Jessalyn’s mind goes back in time, or the rowboat which sticks out from high up the right side of the proscenium, inside which Didi reads Jessalyn’s letters.  Bruno Louchouarn has composed gorgeous original music, a combination of jazz, blues, and bluegrass, and created a sound design which incorporates bayou waves and almost inaudible whispers from the past.  Leah Piehl’s costumes are at an equally high level of excellence. 

With so many plays to choose from, even reviewing over twenty a month I end up missing about three-quarters of those I’m invited to review.  It was the chance to see the work of Kubzansky, Thompson, and Gault at [Inside] The Ford that drew me to Tree.  I’m so glad that it won’t turn out to be one of those productions that leave me wondering at awards time, How could I not have seen that play?  Tree is a play—and production—I feel very fortunate not to have missed. 

Ensemble Studio Theatre-LA, [Inside] the Ford, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood. 

–Steven Stanley
November 12, 2009
                                                                                 Photos: Ed Krieger

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