Black Rep’s post-Civil War drama will have you talking

Eric J. Conners as John and Alicia Reve Like as Clarissa embrace in a scene from “Miss Julie, Clarissa and John” Saturday and Sunday at the Edison Theatre on the campus of Washington University.
Eric J. Conners as John and Alicia Reve Like as Clarissa embrace in a scene from “Miss Julie, Clarissa and John” Saturday and Sunday at the Edison Theatre on the campus of Washington University. Provided

Set during the tumultuous Reconstruction Era in 1888, on a tobacco plantation in Virginia, the stage production of "Miss Julie, Clarissa and John" is a complex portrait of three people desperate for change who can't let go.

This potent drama from the Black Repertory Theatre will start conversations. And they won't be finished during your drive home. The haunting performances by Eric J. Conners as John, Alicia Reve Like as Clarissa and Laurie McConnell as Miss Julie will stay with you.

The production opens tonight and runs through Sunday at the Edison Theatre on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis.

The play opens when it is summer solstice, a time of gaiety in the community, but the real fireworks are in the kitchen.

The Civil War has been over for 23 years, but Miss Julie, a troubled daughter of the Confederate, is mired in the past and hasn't quite figured out how to move forward after emancipation.

Back home to care for her dying, wealthy father Captain Hodge, this confused woman of privilege is used to getting her way. Capricious, coquettish and cruel, Miss Julie treats two servants, Clarissa and John, as if they remained her family's slaves.

The ties that bind them are rooted in employer-employee conduct, but lines have been crossed and none of them can go back to yesterday.

As ugly on the inside as she is beautiful on the outside, dressed in fine outfits, Miss Julie comes in to the kitchen house to socialize, spy and create drama. She's good at stirring the pot.

In a searing raw and real performance, McConnell demonstrates Miss Julie's wildly erratic mood swings — sweet in one sentence, sour in the next. She pleads, demands, and threatens, manipulating kindly John and wary Clarissa.

Yes, she is an awful person.

The second act layers on more drama. It gets harrowing. Life is fierce as Clarissa, whose frustrations boil over into anger, resentment, shame and rage. It's a real wake-up-and-take-notice turn.

Truths are revealed about the mysterious disappearance of her mother, Odessa, and her father. Clarissa could easily crumple, defeated, but she finds an inner strength to carry on against all odds.

She has been grumpy with John, the kindly man-servant far wiser than he lets on, and the presence of Miss Julie just complicates and blurs the relationship. Conners conveys how John plays the game — knowing how to get by and being sly about everything else.

Pittsburgh playwright Mark Clayton Southers describes these three as part of a “love-hate triangle."

Clarissa thwarts Miss Julie's attempts to manipulate and what follows in the last third of the play is shocking.

Souther's play is designed to stun while examining a historical period. With his good intentions, he overstuffs the play with dramatic confrontations. He wanted to tackle many social ills in one sitting, and it's too much to take in, as long passages are heavy with talking points.

The actor speaking such intricate blocks of copy barely gets to come up for air as viewpoints come tumbling out. The details bog down the already complicated relationships. But the material is potent and ripe for discussion.

Southers took August Strindberg's dark Swedish drama, set in 1888, and transferred it to the South. Hence, the title owes to another doomed heroine. But he created an intriguing snapshot of the late 19th century in the South. (With modifications to the times, the melodramatic characters could fit in a modern Tennessee Williams play, too.)

Director Andrea Frye builds the tension and drama with a sure hand. Because the acting trio is so strong immersing themselves in these characters, these flawed people stay with you.

The technical elements are also impressive — Jim Burwinkel's set design creates a functioning kitchen that has crucial passageways and doors.

Bluegrass music amplifies the atmosphere, as part of Robin Weatherall's sound design, while the lighting exposes more secrets and lies. Costume designer JC Kracijek pinpoints the time period and the classes of the characters.

Southers has created something very personal.

"Miss Julie, Clarissa and John"

When: Sept. 23, 24 and 25

Who: The Black Repertory Theatre

Where: Edison Theatre at Washington University

Information: www.theblackrep.org or 314-534-3810