Rashada Dawan in Firebrand Theatre/TimeLine Theatre Company’s production of ‘Caroline, or Change.’ (Photo: Marisa KM)
Firebrand Theatre, a self-described musical theater company “committed to employing and empowering women by expanding their opportunities on and off the stage,” picked a powder keg of source material (inadvertent pun acknowledged) and a well-respected creative partner to launch its second season in the Windy City. Teaming with TimeLine Theatre Company, known for its mission to present modern sociopolitical stories inspired by history, the two creative outfits bring Caroline, or Change to The Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage.
Caroline, or Change, a 2004 Tony Award-nominated Best Musical (with music by Fun Home‘s Jeanine Tesori), is an amalgamation in all of the best American theatrical ways. Part blues rock opera with its finger on the pulse of the Civil Rights movement, part celebration of post-World War II Jewish survival and culture, with book and lyrics by Tony Kushner of Angels in America fame, the work absolutely demands that audience members sit up and pay attention. It has a lot to say, much of it with a Southern Gothic aesthetic evocative of Tennessee Williams at his best.
Much of the Western world’s mid-20th Century social tensions are channeled through Caroline Thibodeaux (Rashada Dawan), a divorced mother of four and domestic worker serving in the employ of the Gellman family. The Thibodeauxs and the Gellmans are galaxies apart on the relative privilege spectrum, but both clans know loss, grief and of course, the experience of being culturally “othered.” As the curtain lifts, audiences are exposed to the strange, but special relationship between 39-year-old Caroline, who confines her moments of spiritual peace to one cigarette per day, and eight-year-old Noah Gellman, who enthusiastically lights Caroline’s smokes and idealizes her as “stronger than a man.”
This characterization is both more and less true than the young, motherless Noah can fathom. Caroline’s internal struggles are expressed via song and short, terse verbal communications devoid of warmth. A domestic violence survivor with broken dreams who supports her family by taking her weary seat on the segregated bus to “wash white people’s clothes,” the only kind of “change” Caroline has known is the kind that asks her to do more with less.
Change of the monetary kind enters the scene when Noah’s harried stepmother Rose (Blair Robertson) devises a unique plan to try to teach the young boy fiscal responsibility. Known to leave coins in his pants pockets, Caroline is asked to keep the found currency for herself in lieu of a badly needed raised that the cash-strapped Gellmans cannot afford. For a while, this modus operandi serves all involved — including Noah who begins to fancy himself the Thibodeaux family’s young, white savior — until it spectacularly doesn’t.
Director Lili-Anne Brown’s staging poorly utilizes the theatre’s configuration and additional sound issues proved problematic on opening night, but there is nothing that can be done to mask the pure, unadulterated talent of Ms. Dawan as the titular Caroline. She is utterly shattering, with amazing vocal range and deft, understated acting gifts that render the character in the right mix of empathetic and repellent.
And in the small but important role of Dotty, a fellow domestic with big collegiate dreams, Nicole Michelle Haskins is a force with which to be reckoned. With quiet words of support, a knack for disappearing at the right time and an equal portion of vocal chops, Ms. Haskins creates an endearing, lighter but much more self-aware foil for the spiritless Caroline. Both women should find themselves on a short list of favorites come Jeff Awards season.
The extended cast is impressive, with particularly fine work from Bre Jacobs as Caroline’s oldest daughter Emmie, a budding practitioner of civil disobedience. Costume design from Kotryna Hilko might have patrons in sudden need of a lightsaber umbrella as they exit the theater. Her integration of modern, electric features into glamorous retro fashion is a boisterous and fun subversion of the source material’s sometimes plodding misery.
Caroline, or Change is an imperfect, but ultimately rewarding production, much like its heroine.
Caroline, or Change
The Den Theatre’s Main Stage
1331 North Milwaukee, Chicago
Through October 28
Becky Sarwate is an award-winning journalist, theater critic, blogger, and author of Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team (Eckhartz Press). She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob and their cats, Wendy and Lisa. Check out her collected work at BeckySarwate.com, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.