Congo Square Theatre shines through 'Dust'

June 7, 2011

If you think with Tolstoy that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, you may find yourself startled by Brothers in the Dust, Congo Square Theatre Company's new production at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts. But if you think with me that "dysfunctional family" is redundant, you'll feel right at home with the Colton family. In either case you'll find yourself moved, absorbed and grateful that Congo Square has once more re-emerged on the Chicago theater scene to present sophisticated scripts no one else seems to have noticed.

Brothers, by Kansas playwright Darren Canady (of whom we'll hear much more--in fact, it's an indictment of the American system of giving playwrights awards and residencies instead of performances that we haven't heard of him til now), takes place in the American South in the early 1960s, but it touches only obliquely on the overtly political struggles of that period. Instead, it's a classic family drama, which is to say one shot through with betrayal and violence as well as the more acceptable familial emotions. And by "classic" I don't mean anything as modern as Shakespeare; we're talking the Greek tragedies or the Bible, in which brothers fight to the death over their birthrights while their wives serve variously as surrogate, weapon and valuable property.

Roy Colton lives to work the farm he inherited from his father, while his brothers--each entitled to an undivided one-third share of the same land--have left for greener pastures. To preserve the farm he literally works night and day, neglecting his wife and son. So he certainly doesn't have time for the two prodigal brothers who descend on him simultaneously, one with a scheme for selling the farm to oil men and the other on the run from unspecified trouble in the big city. But the brothers are just as determined to have their way as Roy is to have his, and the play follows the shifting alliances and casual backstabbing that result from the clash of their individual forms of selfishness. 

There are overtones of Desire Under the Elms, of The Piano Lesson, even of Jacob and Esau, but ultimately Brothers in the Dust is its own creation, portraying the familiar subjects of intrafamilial tension and the war between the sexes in a setting unfamiliar to most urban theatergoers, at least white ones. 

As sharply directed by Daniel Bryant and vividly acted by the entire company, Brothers . . . sweeps the audience along, engaging our loyalties so much that there were scattered hisses at curtain call for the bad guys (Anthony Irons as brother Wilson and Velma Austin-Massey as his blackmailing wife, both superb). The production overcomes the relatively few weaknesses in the script, including a rather forced ending and a failure to develop Roy's character. It's a tribute to James T. Alfred's performance that Roy nonetheless comes across clearly as a strong man almost destoyed by his virtues, while Austin Talley as brother Ollie the charming weakling provides excellent contrast.

Not that there was any doubt, but Brothers in the Dust proves once again that Congo Square is the real deal. Through June 26, $30, with half-price Saturday matinees.