Occasionally, Balagula Theatre offers its stage at Natasha's Bistro to allied theater groups to share quality productions. Actor's Choice of Louisville is one such group, and the opening night of its short, two-night run of Kentucky native Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Topdog/Underdog was more than worth the trek to the theater on a rainy Monday.
Directed by Kathy B. Ellis, a Louisville director who directed last season's A Steady Rain for Balagula, Topdog/Underdog is an emotionally jolting tour de force about the interdependency of two brothers striving against poverty and family tragedy to scrape together whatever passes for empowerment and a sense of meaningful identity in their difficult lives.
The brothers, both black, were named Lincoln and Booth as a joke by their alcoholic father, but the ironic similarities between their namesakes become a haunting fixture of their complex relationship and a deep source of conflict. Abandoned first by their mother and then by their father, each giving them a presumably guilt-ridden departing "inheritance" of $500, the brothers developed a deep tie to each other to survive, a dependence that continues in their adult lives.
Lincoln, the older brother, has been kicked out by his wife and is staying with Booth in a cramped one-room apartment with no running water and a bathroom down the hall. Lincoln has given up a lucrative but illegal career as a street hustler of three-card monte in favor of a job at a local carnival dressing as Abraham Lincoln, complete with whiteface, and letting tourists "shoot" him at a fake theater.
The play unfolds in the suffocating intimacy of their evenings at home, with Booth pushing Lincoln to teach him his card hustle and dreaming of a glamorous life where the brothers have plenty of money, women and, most important, togetherness. Lincoln pushes back and insists that having a straight job with a regular paycheck is the way to go, even though his is routinely humiliating and deeply ironic.
Keith McGill and Brian Lee West deliver mesmerizing and powerful performances as Lincoln and Booth, respectively. They convey the seesaw of power exchanges with aching poignancy, as each takes turns jockeying for dominance before relenting into protective, brotherly tenderness.
Tom Willis' cramped, dingy set design powerfully underscores the role of money as a silent character itself, another symbol of the interdependent complexities of power between the brothers. When Lincoln gets paid by his impersonation job, the jubilant, perpetually unemployed Booth thinks nothing of leaving Lincoln with only $9, and Lincoln doesn't protest. Conversely, when Booth "boosts," i.e. steals, fancy suits for each of them to wear, Lincoln accepts the "gift" with no moral qualms.
By revealing that even sexual boundaries have been repeatedly crossed with their family — Booth slept with Lincoln's estranged wife, for instance — we learn how the very enmeshment that helped the pair survive on the streets is what might destroy them.
Kudos to Ellis for dynamically fleshing out the many thematic layers of Parks' script and to McGill and West for their piercing, unforgettable performances as two brothers whose tragedy seems as fated as their namesakes.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer.