ROSELEAF TEA, Chicago Theatre Company. The Chicago Theatre Company's world premiere of Judi Ann Mason's play is an admirable attempt to make solid theater out of what is essentially a southern potboiler. They almost manage it.
In the town of Roseleaf, supposedly located in Louisiana, but in tone and style situated just south of where they filmed Mandingo, the white Udell family lives across the road from the black Foote family. Unfortunately their story is so fraught with melodrama that the author's cry for tolerance is all but lost. Butter Udell, as lacking in spine as his name suggests, loves Tiny Foote, but he has neither the brains nor the gumption to resist donning a Klansman's hood, so his love seems stunningly contrived.
The play promises an "unflinching" exploration of racism, but instead gives us a long, prurient stare at its stereotypes. Villains like the rabid, weasel-faced Tweedy (Butter's cousin and tormentor) do exist, but bigots usually exhibit just a hint of human decency--that's what makes them dangerous. Tweedy himself says, "You gotta blend in if you wanna be effective." But he takes none of his own advice, hurling racial epithets so fast and furiously he barely has time to wipe the froth from his chin, and bubbling with such sociopathic bug-eyed hate that it's a wonder he's allowed to roam the streets. Likewise, Tiny's mother Vera is monstrous, a ragingly abusive alcoholic.
Although interesting and committed performances are tough to deliver when your script deals out cliches in double fistfuls, the ensemble doesn't disappoint. One cast member, standing over the body of a slaughtered innocent, even manages to deliver the timeworn line, "His blood runs as red as ours," as though it were a truth never before considered.