Playwright: Julie Hébert. At: Victory Gardens Theatre at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln. Phone: 773-871-3000; $20-$50. Runs through: May 1
Imagine that you're a middle-aged African-American chef living in Chicago with a college-age child and a venerated mother gradually declining into dementia. Or imagine that you're a white gender-studies professor in New Orleans, the daughter of a cruelly embittered father, recently deceased. Now imagine that you are granted the means to discover the secret of how your respective dam and sire, both now beyond redemption or recriminations, came to be the people whom you knew. What would you do?
What the long-lost brother and sister at the center of Julie Hébert's Tree (as in "family tree") do is to hesitate, then hesitate again, then hesitate some more. Leo says, "Get out!" many times (while never threatening to call the police or take out a restraining order), and Didi likewise repeatedly declares, "I'm going!" (but never retreats farther than her car). Aloof from the denials, resentments, accusations, pleas and challenges are teenage JJ, who rejects her elders' timidity, and matriarch Jesse, who vacillates between lucidity, senility and the oracular pronouncements so beloved of southern playwrights steeped in Shintoistic ancestor-worship.
"Sometimes we have to know where we've come from to know who we are" proclaims the show's publicity. But after 95 minutes of watching Leo and Didi drag their feet, we are left as puzzled as in the beginning. Oh, we know that Mrs. Jesse Price and Mr. Ray Marcantel were once wed in California (where interracial marriages were permitted in 1954) while the latter was in the marines, and that Leo is the offspring of that union, and that the spouses eventually parted ways to seek other partners. But where did Jesse, a former school principal, acquire her saltyand curiously phallocentricvocabulary? Why did Ray's dear-john experience assume the repercussive shape that it did? And why does Didi first enter in a boat arising from a smoking pit in the stage floor (representing the Styx?) just as Jesse is ranting about seeing devils?
This isn't the first time that director Andrea J. Dymond has been assigned the task of finding a story in a labyrinth of provocative imagery, and under her guidance Aaron Todd Douglas and Elaine Rivkin maintain a capable level of interest throughout, assisted by Leslie Ann Sheppard as the peppery JJ and Celeste Williams in the thankless role of Mama Jesse. Ultimately, however, Tree is a premise still searching for a resolutiona goal we eagerly await, perhaps in a later play.