“American Son”: An emotionally draining cautionary drama

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John Bolger and Suzzanne Douglas in
John Bolger and Suzzanne Douglas in "American Son." Photo by T Charles Erickson

American Son, the latest offering at the George Street Playhouse, is a searing drama torn from today’s headlines. This is the final production to be directed here by artistic director David Saint before the theatre is torn down to create the long-planned New Brunswick arts center later this year, and he could not have made a better choice.

John Bolger, Suzzanne Douglas and Mark Junek in "American Son." Photo by T Charles Erickson
John Bolger, Suzzanne Douglas and Mark Junek in “American Son.” Photo by T Charles Erickson

The play, by the award-winning playwright Christopher Demos-Brown, is a compact 90-minute offering, centered on the estranged parents of the unseen American son of the title. Scott Connor, a white FBI agent, reunites with his estranged black wife, professor Kendra Ellis-Connor, in the waiting room of a police station in Miami-Dade County, Florida. Their only son Jamal has gone missing since leaving the house, and a report of a traffic incident with possible fatalities brings his parents to the station. Without any clear information from the police, their fears and imaginings soon turn them against each other, raking over the events that led to Scott walking out on Kendra and their differing views on their son’s upbringing and future.

Suzzanne Douglas and John Bolger in "American Son" at George Street Playhouse. Photo by T Charles Erickson
Suzzanne Douglas and John Bolger in “American Son” at George Street Playhouse. Photo by T Charles Erickson

Director Saint is blessed with his two leads, both George Street veterans. Suzzanne Douglas portrays a woman who has finally had it when the unsettled issues of race in America threaten her beloved son. She is a woman who knows her rights and insists on having them recognized. Ms. Douglas’ performance is balanced by that of John Bolger as her husband, a man who cannot — willfully or not — understand why he is being accused of being a bad father when he has done everything he knows to do to give his son every advantage for success in the world.

John Bolger and Mark Kenneth Smaltz, playing respectively an officer at the station and a lieutenant assigned to community relations, offer two well-acted characterizations. Bolger’s Officer Conner displays the casual racism of the system, withholding information from the mother by citing protocol, yet freely offering it to the father. It is a telling moment when, after offering the mother only water earlier in the evening, he offers coffee to the father, who is fellow law enforcement professional. Smaltz’s Lieutenant Stokes is the no-nonsense face of authority, unwilling to accept either the father’s assumption of white privilege or the mother’s in-your-face blanket condemnation of police authority. He forces both parents to take a look at their respective stances, unnerving them.

Suzzanne Douglas and Mark Kenneth Smaltz in "American Son" at George Street Playhouse. Photo by T Charles Erickson
Suzzanne Douglas and Mark Kenneth Smaltz in “American Son” at George Street Playhouse. Photo by T Charles Erickson

The single set, a sparse police station waiting room skillfully designed by Jason Simms assisted by the talented lighting and sound designs of Tyler Micoleau and Christopher J. Bailey respectively, becomes a virtual cage for the warring parents. David Murin’s costumes fit the era and the characters perfectly.

For a gripping tale of racial tensions unfolding within one family who seemingly had it all, which will hold you in its grip from the first sentence to the last shattering minutes, you can’t do better by seeing the George Street Playhouse’s production of Christopher Demos-Brown’s American Son.

Note: An interactive display with scenes from Jamal’s life occupies the audience lounge. It contains written reactions from the audience to broad questions about wishes and feelings they have for their own children. Even if you don’t write your own comments, those left by other audience members are worth reading for the hopes, fears, and concerns shared by every parent where their child is concerned.

American Son is being presented by the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through February 26th. For tickets and information, visit www.GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org.