Waiting to Be Invited, Victory Gardens Theater. Though S.M. Shephard-Massat's play is contemporary--it won the 2001 Osborn Award for emerging playwrights--it has a distinctly old-fashioned leisurely pace and devotion to storytelling. Set in the 1960s south and based on the experiences of the playwright's grandmother and other African-American women who bucked the system--and their own fears--to integrate lunch counters, Shephard-Massat's play revels in roundabout conversations and occasional catfights as the characters ride a bus to downtown Atlanta in act one and screw their courage to the sticking place outside a department store in act two.
Ilesa Lisa Duncan's direction of this midwest premiere could be crisper; there's a lot of dead air in that stifling bus. Irma P. Hall gets star billing as the acid-tongued Odessa, but this is actually an ensemble effort. Though some of the secrets revealed about the women are cliches, each of the five actresses (and Kenn E. Head as the warmhearted driver) gets an opportunity to peel back the layers of her character and show us the bruised but unbowed spirit beneath. Mary Ann Thebus shines--and surprises--as an eccentric, overbearing white woman, the kind that Flannery O'Connor delighted in giving her comeuppance. Mary Griswold's set is a dispiriting gray-and-putty affair, but Kristine Knanishu's simple white dresses and smart hats enliven the dingy surroundings.